Help from across the pond: Dutch-born Easterners make immigration their business

by Katy de Vries

FLORENCEVILLE, N.B. – Not only is Dutch-born truck driver Harm-Berend Meulman living his dream of living and working in Canada, he wants to make life here with his new Canadian girlfriend a permanent reality.

Meulman left his small town of Oostwold in the Netherlands to continue his truck driving career Canadian style.

“Since I was a little boy, it was always my dream to come to Canada,” said the 31-year old driver, now living in Florenceville, N.B. and driving the Eastern Seaboard route for Sunbury Transport. “This is my home now, I love it here…I definitely made the right choice in coming to Canada, and having met a wonderful Canadian girl makes it even better.”

Meulman took the first step towards realizing his dream after seeing a trucking magazine ad from a New Brunswick company, Eastern Canada Immigration and Job Consultants. The company, started by two immigrants from Holland, set European truck drivers up with trucking firms and homes in Eastern Canada.

With a little help from his dispatcher in Holland, Meulman set up his paperwork and contacted the European immigration service started by Annette and Rolf Sluiter in September of last year. By January, 2004 he was living and working in Canada.

Meulman is a prime example of the Sluiters’ “home grown” solution to the Canadian trucking industry’s driver shortage.

The Sluiters, who live on a farm near Florenceville, N.B., began their European immigration service in September 2000 to help fill Canada’s professional driver void with help from overseas.

They explained that while researching Canadian industries to see where there was a depletion of skilled labour, the trucking industry emerged at the top of the list. So they went to work, keeping in mind the lessons they learned as immigrants about all the red tape people often have to go through trying to build a new life abroad.

“We have placed 45 drivers within a year and a half and only four of them returned home to Europe,” said Rolf. “And we have learned from the experiences of those who left Canada.”

The company currently recruits drivers from the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain and England, and helps staff 15 different companies throughout New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The best candidates seem to be married drivers over the age of 27 with small children. Most are just looking to build a good life for their family.

“They are the ones that seem to not only survive but end up loving it here,” Annette said. “We maintain relationships with all of the drivers and their families and are always looking for feedback. People are happy here. They are enjoying their work even though it is different from what they were used to. They find the people very friendly and helpful. They even like the snow during the Canadian winters.”

After nearly 14 years of driving a truck throughout Europe, Meulman said it took a little getting used to driving, and living, the Canadian way. Since he was the first person of his family to immigrate to another country, he was understandably nervous, but said the excitement far outweighed the fear.

“I had never flown for such a long flight before and I had never set foot in Canada before so it was scary. But I was so excited to do the one thing I had been thinking about for so long,” said Meulman. “The job itself is very different here, shifting gears and double clutching especially – this is old fashioned for us. These are all the things my father used to do 25 or 30 years ago as a truck driver, but I like it, it’s kind of neat that I get to drive like my dad used to.”

The other thing that surprised Meulman upon his arrival in Canada was the size of some of the trucking companies.

“Sunbury is a big company. They have about 140 trucks but in Holland my company had only about 17 trucks, so I wasn’t used to that right away but I like it. Sunbury is a great company and they treat me really well, it’s like working with a big family,” Meulman said.

The Sluiters handle a maximum of 50 clients per year.

“Since we do everything for the client from beginning to end, we have to invest a lot of time into one placement,” said Rolf.

The Dutch duo looks after all the paperwork on immigration and government regulations. The Sluiters also find houses for the drivers, help them choose an employer, set their kids up in school and do the grocery shopping when they arrive.

“We even make sure we know their dog’s name!” laughed Annette.

Meulman said he likes his apartment and everything he needs was set up for him there. It would have been exactly what he would have chosen himself, he said.

“I asked Annette to find a small town where I could live because I came from a very small town in Holland and I wanted a similar feel,” said Meulman. “There is a Dutch contingent in Fredericton and Saint John but after all, I came to Canada to live among Canadians not the Dutch.”

But it doesn’t stop there.

“Immigrating to another country is a big step in someone’s life,” said Annette. “So we talk to the client about the culture and the realities of living in Canada. It’s all the little things that matter to them.”

The Sluiters only live about three miles down the road from Meulman and they tried to help him as much as they could with the transition.

“For the first three or four months that I was here, I was at their place a lot,” said Meulman. “They helped me a great deal with the Canadian culture and showed me how things worked in this country.”

It takes roughly four months from the time European drivers first contact the Sluiters about their hopes of working in Canada to realize their dreams.

One of the Sluiters’ concerns is that drivers’ wives, used to working in Europe as nurses, secretaries or accountants, will feel unfulfilled in Canada because they are not initially allowed to work. The National Occupation Classification does not recognize truck driving as skilled labour, and as a result driver spouses are not allowed to get a work permit in Canada.

The Sluiters are doing what they can to work around this for now.

“We visit the families on a regular basis and we try to find social groups and volunteer opportunities for the wives. We introduce them to each other so they know there are other people in the same boat,” said Annette.

Annette is hopeful that if spouses gain experience volunteering or interning in Canada, it will help them become permanent residents of Canada, or at least get a visitor’s work permit.

In the meantime, the Sluiters are lobbying the federal government to change the rules.

“We have been working with Andy Savoy, Tobique-Mactaquac Liberal MP, on these initiatives,” said Annette. “And he does everything he can to help us out.”

Another legislative roadblock is the length of the Canadian work permit, which is 12 months. Early on in that 12-month period, the Sluiters help the driver apply for permanent residency. The provincial nominee system in New Brunswick takes about six months to complete. So if they don’t get it before their year is up, they must go back home to Europe for four months and re-apply, which can be costly, said Annette.

“We are working with the government to get help with extending work permits in Canada,” said Rolf. “Although we feel confident that things will change, it is a slow process.”

Right now, Meulman has applied to extend his work permit another year and is awaiting his permanent residency for Canada.

For more information call the Sluiters at (506) 276-3336.

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