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Canada: Sentimental Journey

3 minute read

It was the kind of trip the Prime Minister likes best—sights to see, a respectable minimum of speeches and official duties, a sentimental mission or two.

Paris was a one-day stop. There Mackenzie King paid homage to the man who he believes is one of history’s greatest. At the Pasteur Institute, where he asked photographers not to take pictures, he went down into an underground chapel, placed six red roses on the black marble tomb of Louis Pasteur. Then he knelt, his face in his hands, for three silent minutes. When he emerged his cheeks were wet with tears.

Observing Man. In Belgium, the Prime Minister got honorary doctorates from Brussels and Louvain Universities, and at Louvain, twice destroyed by invading Germans, he saw students at work under temporary wooden ceilings. He remarked that the sight was a “magnificent example” of Belgian indomitability. On Armistice Day in Brussels, accompanied by Belgium’s Regent Prince Charles, he laid a chrysanthemum and laurel wreath on the tomb of Belgium’s Unknown Soldier.

One night, as the guest of Premier Paul-Henri Spaak, he dined on lobster, Brussels chicken and champagne, heard his host make a joke about his long tenure in office. Said Spaak, stealing a thought from La Rochefoucauld: “Man comes to power through his bad qualities. . . .” Spaak paused for a moment, eyes atwinkle, then went on—”and keeps power through his good ones.” Mr. King smiled broadly; other guests guffawed.

Everyone seemed to like the P.M. Said a waiter who served him: “I’ve seen 25 Belgian premiers come & go in the last 25 years, and I was curious to see from close by what a permanent premier looks like.” He thought he had fathomed the secret of Mr. King’s success: “He knows perfectly when to laugh, and especially not to laugh while others are laughing.”

Fighting Men. The Netherlands was next. There were solid reasons why Mr. King was a hero there. The Netherlands has already sent 5,000 of its citizens to Canada since the war’s end. Canada was the first nation to give The Netherlands a postwar loan; Crown Princess Juliana lived in Ottawa during the war. Most important, it was Canada’s army that drove the Germans out.

At the little village of Putte, where he crossed the border, villagers crowded around his car, gave him a silver plate engraved with the names of twelve Canadian soldiers who had died there. The University of Amsterdam gave him another honorary doctorate. He was a guest of Queen Wilhelmina, Princess Juliana and Prince Consort Bernhard at Soestdyk Palace. The Netherlands’ Parliament eulogized him as “the grand old man of Canada.” Everywhere he went, children and grownups came out of their houses to wave and cheer.

The trip’s most somber moment came when Mr. King visited the Canadian military cemetery at Bergen op Zoom.* It was dark when he got there, in a cavalcade of cars that slithered over slippery roads, but automobile headlights lit up the rows of 1,800 white crosses. The Prime Minister placed a wreath on the central monument. Then, head bared to a cold rain, he walked slowly along the rows, reading the names on the crosses. When he left for London to attend the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, Prime Minister King carried a memory of Canada’s fighting men with him.

*Canada, unlike the U.S., does not permit the return of the bodies of her war dead.

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