On May 5 we celebrate Dutch Heritage Day across Canada, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the many contributions that Canadians of Dutch Heritage have made to our country’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. May 5 is also Liberation Day in the Netherlands, marking the end of Nazi Germany’s occupation during the Second World War.

In the occupied Netherlands, the Dutch people experienced hardship, oppression and starvation. In 1945, their ordeal came to an end as the Allies advanced across the country. Canadians played a significant role in the liberation of the Netherlands.

In honour of Dutch Heritage Day, True Patriot Love spoke to Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, founder of Little Canada, an immersive journey through the sights and sounds of Canada in miniature scale, like Little Toronto, Little Ottawa, Little East Coast, petit Québec and more. Born in the UK to Dutch parents, he is marking 25 years in Canada this year.

“Next year in Little Canada, I would like to tell the story of the role of Canadians in the liberation of the Netherlands,” says Brenninkmeijer. The ties between Canada and the Netherlands are close: the Dutch royal family also went into exile in Canada, and when Princess Juliana’s daughter Margriet was born in Ottawa in 1943, the Canadian government temporarily declared her place of birth as outside of Canadian territory, enabling her to keep her Dutch citizenship and be eligible for the Dutch throne. “The Dutch still send 10,000 tulip bulbs every year to Canada – that all stems from the role Canada played,” he says.

What inspired you to make Canada your home?

In 1999 I was working in Europe and was invited by my company to learn specialty store retailing. My whole career in Europe was based on high street, big box retail, and within the same company we had smaller formats. I was approached to move into that division and the best place to learn was in Canada, so I came over with my wife and six-month-old son. (We now have four boys.)

After two years, the company decided to exit the specialty store business so the job I was going back to no longer existed. I had a decision to make: what do I do now? We decided we didn’t want to go back to Europe, we wanted to stay. The beauty of Canada was a reason: after living in a country with 12 months of cloud and rain, to be in a country with four distinct seasons really spoke to us.

The second reason was the friendliness of the people. We really embraced the diversity and multiculturalism of Canada. My father met a lot of people during his visits and enjoyed the sense that everyone here is an immigrant and has a background that is somewhere else. Canada felt so friendly and refreshing to him. My father put it really nicely: when he visited, he would say “Here the world is still okay.” That quote is written in Dutch on the wall of Little Canada.

What was the inspiration for Little Canada? Were you surprised by its success?

I was born in the UK and both of my parents were Dutch. Every year we would go visit my grandparents. We learned all about the Netherlands during those visits. I always had a plan that Little Canada would be like the Madurodam that our father would take us to, and also the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg.

I did not expect how well our team has executed the concept and that is underpinned by the reviews and the ratings we’ve received since we’ve opened. Reading the reviews is inspiring. More important is the impact that we’re making and the stories that we tell. To be able to tell the story of Vimy Ridge – not gory details but telling a story of leadership and hope through the story of Leslie Howard Miller, who took acorns from Vimy Ridge and planted them in Canada – I never expected that we would be in a position to tell a story like that. Or telling the story of Nichola Goddard: she wanted to serve the country and paid the price for our freedom. Little Canada can continue to tell those stories and perhaps do more of it.

The other thing we like is when guests tell stories prompted by what they see. Almost 5,000 people have been littlized, and each has a story about where they want to be placed. [Guests can be “littlized”, i.e. have figurines made of themselves by scanning and 3D printing, and be placed in the environment of their choice.]

Little Canada can have a positive impact on every person who comes through, by connecting people, places, and stories in miniature – and telling stories that you don’t learn at school.

What inspired your decision to add the Captain Nichola Goddard bridge and the Vimy Ridge Memorial to Little Canada?

I was born in the UK and grew up there until I was 15 and one of the things that I remember back then and to this day is that, come November, the British all wear the poppy. They’re the only ones who do in Europe and I always enjoyed wearing it. My father would buy a poppy from a cadet; I would wear the poppy in Europe to meetings. In a way, the poppy was the conduit for my getting a better understanding of the role of Canada as a peacekeeping nation.

As the years went by, the Highway of Heroes started to percolate in my head – that’s a story worth telling that a lot of people don’t know, particularly people who are new to the country. I did a lot of reading up on it, and got in touch with True Patriot Love, who were able to facilitate a breakfast with Nichola Goddard’s sister Kate. I wanted to dedicate a bridge to Nichola and put up a plaque. It took us three years of planning. It’s still my preferred scene in Little Canada. It just speaks to me. It brings home the whole idea of fellow humans who have decided, even with the risk involved, to make it their career to ensure that we remain free. Many of them, thousands and thousands at a very young age, died for our freedom. I look at my boys and imagine what it would be like if they didn’t come back. That’s why I wanted this to be part of Little Canada – to remind people that the military is part of our society.

We launched the Highway of Heroes in November 2021. Since then, we’ve had Veterans who’ve come to Little Canada who have asked to have their littlized selves placed on the bridge on the Highway.

The Vimy Ridge Monument is the same thing – I called it Canada Beyond Its Borders. One of our responsibilities is to give the opportunity to reflect, this is what happened 100 years ago, in World War II, in the Korean War. Vimy Ridge is one of those moments in time where we talk about collaboration, leadership and hope.

I remember visiting East Berlin and Hungary during school trips when I was going to school in Germany – I could see firsthand what it meant not to have freedom. The Vimy Ridge Monument reminds me we are so fortunate to live in a country that is free.

In 2025, True Patriot Love will be leading a commemorative tour for the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. To learn more, send an email to events@truepatriotlove.com.