The Dutch Cheesed off at Vancouver? By John Lang (Column)




John Lang

A recent press article revealed that Dutch plans for a “Holland House” in Vancouver during the Olympics might have to be shelved. After many months battling Kafkaesque bureaucracy and bolshie unions the Dutch are at the point of pulling the plug.

They have corporate sponsors lined up – notably Heineken – and had hoped to host 3,500 people every evening. But the thickness of our red tape and the obtuseness of our officials is putting a crimp in their plans and making them wonder about our organizational competence. Perhaps they can be reminded that we were not always so inflexible, a contention the following story might support.

In 1985 I was working in our embassy in The Hague. Readers will recall that Vancouver was then feverishly preparing for Expo ’86. The world was coming to Vancouver and Vancouver was getting ready. False Creek had been made over to accommodate the pavilions that the nations of the world were erecting there. Vancouver had come of age and the federal government of the day finally had an opportunity to show BC that it really did care. The feds pumped money into the project and put their best man in charge, a large outspoken Irish-Canadian with a reputation for getting things done. I had bumped into him on several occasions over the preceding years and can confirm that his reputation was well deserved. He neither suffered fools gladly nor brooked any dissent: just the man we needed as Commissioner of Expo ’86.

It was therefore with some foreboding that I learned from my ambassador that the Dutch, unique among European nations, did not intend to participate in Expo ’86 and that the Commissioner found this unacceptable. He had reserved space for them. My job was to change the Dutch mind. Within minutes I was speaking to the friendly, polite, and very direct diplomat who headed the Canada Desk at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He explained that his ministry had absolutely no budget for participation in fairs, especially Expos that lasted six months, were hideously expensive, and all rather pointless. He directed me to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, suggested my quest was hopeless, and wished me luck.

The lady at the Ministry of Foreign Trade confirmed that hers was the only agency involved with fairs but that as a matter of policy they never considered World Fairs or Expos. “Why would we do this?” she asked. “The cost of Dutch pavilions is shared with Dutch companies, which absolutely require that there be a marketing objective. No company is willing to consider an event lasting more than a few days. Too expensive! And how long can the costumed Dutch girls with braids hand out the cheese samples anyway? Vancouver will be the only beneficiary, let them pay for a Dutch pavilion.” She was correct, of course. Enthusiasm for these events has waned considerably as evidenced by the financial disasters beginning with Expo 2000 in Hannover. By that time decisions to spend millions of dollars on such events were based largely on bureaucratic inertia. As usual, the sensible Dutch were miles ahead of everyone else. To them a proposal had to make good business sense.

I reported the foregoing to the Commissioner, whose reaction was entirely within character. “No goddamn way the Dutch won’t have a pavilion. Remind them that we rescued their sorry asses from the Germans and they owe us.” I tried to persuade him that there was no point trying to make them change their minds. The Dutch have never forgotten Canada’s role in their liberation but were unlikely to feel obliged to participate in Expo ‘86 as a result. The Commissioner replied that I had just not explained it right and that he would do it himself, in person. I was spared having to attend his meetings in The Hague because the ambassador wanted to accompany him to ensure Dutch-Canadian relations were not irrevocably damaged. In the end, and despite his considerable charm, the Commissioner left empty-handed. The Dutch do not bend when they know their cause is just. Their polite firmness outlasted the Commissioner’s blustering insistence and the latter retreated to Vancouver, seething that the nation that should have been first to enlist would not attend. He may have comforted himself with the thought that at least the Dutch thing was behind him. If so, he could not have been more wrong, and thus begins the more interesting part of this narrative.

As a result of the publicity that the Commissioner insisted we generate while he was in the Netherlands, I received a phone call from the Mayor of Coevorden, a village in deepest Holland with which I was entirely unacquainted. The mayor had learned of Expo ’86 from our press release and had had a brilliant idea.

Here I must explain that before Napoleon required the Dutch to adopt family names (for tax reasons, of course) they generally ran about using the name of their town as an identifier. Thus it was that several centuries ago a gent from Coevorden (literally, Oxford), surnamed van Coevorden emigrated to England and sired a son who joined the British Navy and -- you can see where this is going – the Brits bastardized his name to Vancouver. The rest is history.

Bottom line – the mayor wanted to arrange a Coevoerden pavilion at Expo ’86. The problem was that an official pavilion would cost millions and be quite beyond the means of his citizenry. Perhaps he could arrange something on a mayor-to-mayor basis? I suggested he call my old UBC chum, and then Mayor of Vancouver, Mike Harcourt, and slipped him Mike’s phone number little suspecting what the result would be.

That the irascible Expo ’86 Commissioner had managed to annoy everyone with whom he had official contact, including Mike Harcourt, was a given. Mike received his Coevorden counterpart’s call and knew instantly that he had been delivered of an opportunity for pay-back. Within a month, the mayor of Coevorden called on me in The Hague and laid out his plans. He was very short, unusual in a Dutchman, but his eye seemed to glitter all the more for this. As we spoke, he explained, carpenters were busy building a one-third-scale model of his village’s only landmark, Coevorden Castle. The model castle, made of plywood but you would never guess, was to grace an open space at the Georgia Street entrance to Pacific Mall, just off Granville – the very hub of Vancouver. Harcourt had arranged everything and it was not costing Coevorden village a penny. Local merchants were helping cover costs, Coevorden school kids had volunteered to wear traditional costume and hand out samples of Coevorden’s products, notably cheese, while practicing their English in Vancouver. KLM would help with their air fares and Dutch-Canadians in the Vancouver area had agreed to provide free accommodation for them. All was arranged.

The Commissioner was not amused. Not only had the Dutch government rebuffed him, now a Dutch interloper was going to milk the Expo crowds without paying the considerable official fee. He fumed and I believe he tried, and failed, to block the deal. In the event, Coevorden had a very successful Expo: millions dropped in to investigate the Vancouver-Coevorden connection and sample the cheese. Coevorden was on the map but it was not until Expo ended that the canny Coevorden mayor’s entrepreneurial genius really shone through. Faced with the cost of dismantling and disposing of a somewhat worn plywood castle, what would you have done? He sold it as-is to Bill Vanderzalm, Premier of BC, Dutchman, and owner of Fantasy Gardens near Vancouver airport. The castle is still there. Drop in next time you are in the neighbourhood. Sorry, no cheese samples. But where is Mike Harcourt now that his city really needs him?

Tags: John Lang