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For the Love of Hamilton

This regular HAMILTON CITY Magazine feature will highlight people, from all walks of life, who have embraced Hamilton as their new home.

Dirk Francis and Karen Van Hoecke became Hamiltonians about a year ago when Francis officially took on his new three-year post as vice-president of manufacturing at ArcelorMittal Dofasco on May 1, 2022. The couple moved from their native Belgium with their son Bengt, 19, who is pursuing a bachelor of technology degree at McMaster University. He wants to be an engineer like his parents. The family lives in the Riverdale East neighbourhood of Stoney Creek.

What are some differences between Canada and Belgium?

DF: A big difference is that university is 10 times more expensive here. That was a surprise. Another difference is all the paperwork to fill out here. For university, for driver’s licences, for everything. We don’t have as much at home.

In Belgium, everyone has two bikes. Here, everyone has two cars. 

And here, people are very positive. Belgians and Germans are cooler people.

Tell us about your family and career.

DF: Karen and I have been together since 1994 and our son was born in 2004. I am an electromechanical engineer and Karen is a chemical engineer. She took two years off to be with Bengt and never went back. 

KVH: My job was a lot of stress and I couldn’t be home in the evenings. As Dirk got promotions, our son would have had two stressed parents. 

DF: I was working at ArcelorMittal Germany before I came to Dofasco where I was chief operating officer. Before that, I was at ArcelorMittal Ghent in Belgium since 1998. I was head of blast furnaces and sinter plants, and before that head of cokemaking and also responsible for raw materials, the harbour, recycling and internal transport.

I started my career in 1995 at Philips Lighting in the Netherlands, in charge of development and assembly of energy saving lamps. I have a master of civil engineering in mechatronics from the University of Leuven, Belgium, as well as a master of industrial engineering in electro-mechanics from the Industrial High School of Ghent.

When I was working in Bremen, Germany, I travelled 500 kilometres to come to see my family on the weekends, which was very difficult.

Karen Van Hoecke and Dirk Francis pictured at ArcelorMittal Dofasco. Photos: Joseph Bucci/ArcelorMittal Dofasco

Why did you decide to come to Canada?

DF: It wasn’t on my bucket list to come to Canada but this opportunity came up at ArcelorMittal Dofasco. It is one of the top three performers within the global company and a chance to expand my responsibilities to all manufacturing operations. When I first came to visit the plant, everyone was so open and warm, even though it was secret that I was joining ArcelorMittal Dofasco. It was a chance to learn another culture for me and my family and a great opportunity for my son to go to university in Canada. 

What were your first impressions of Hamilton?

DF: I had never heard of Tim Hortons before I came here but I saw all these people walking around drinking from coffee cups or lining up in their cars in the morning. The truth is, we are doing the same thing now. In Belgium, everyone just drinks coffee at home.

Canada doesn’t have the history that Europe has. It’s a young country but the nature is amazing here. You don’t have to drive far to see nature. 

KVH: My first impression is that it’s a beautiful place here but there are parts that could be better taken care of so that it’s even more beautiful. I would say our cities are more beautiful. They are older and better care is taken of the buildings and the streets. But the nature here is much more beautiful than at home. 

What neighbourhood do you live in, and why did you choose it?

DF: I looked for a house all over but we didn’t want to live too far from Dofasco and we were looking for transit to get to McMaster for our son. We wanted a detached house with a small garden. The lake was important, too. We live in a small, quiet village in Belgium, so downtown was too crowded for us. Rental prices are expensive here in Canada but the house we found had all the criteria. 

KVH: DF: I love that there are so many cultures here in Canada. Our neighbours are from Portugal, Netherlands and India and they are so friendly and welcoming. We are learning about their cultures.

How do you spend your time in Hamilton?

DF: We live about a kilometre from the lake, so we go there a lot and Karen goes almost every day on her bike. I think she would take the lake back to Belgium with her. We do a lot of hiking on the weekends, too. We have visited many of the waterfalls in Hamilton. We’ve also been to Niagara Falls and to Collingwood. 

KVH: It’s been a challenge to be in Canada alone when my husband is at work and my son is at school. I have loved to make art since I was young. I learned to paint from pictures but now I’m interested in abstract painting and finding my own creativity. I express my feelings in painting. From the moment I start painting, I know no time anymore.

I walk or bike to the lake and sit on the rocks. It’s so beautiful and every time it’s a different colour. I have been painting at the lake and I’m working on an abstract that includes the view of  Toronto. The waterfalls are amazing and it’s impossible to see anything like them in Belgium. I want to paint a waterfall, too.

What in Hamilton surprises and delights you?

DF and KVH: The waterfalls. We didn’t know how many there are here. We’ve been to the Devil’s Punch Bowl, Sherman Falls, Webster’s Falls, Tiffany Falls. They have been beautiful. We were also surprised by the fall colours. We don’t get that at home. 

Hamilton needs more …?

DF: Bike infrastructure. Biking is dangerous in some places here. More biking would make the city more liveable. And Hamilton needs more pubs. Every street has five pubs at home. 

KVH: More ability to ride a bike. People respect bikes here but drivers don’t expect to see them. 

Hamilton needs less …?

DF: Poverty. There are so many people who are struggling and on the streets. It’s typical for cities, but more supports are needed.

KVH: Homeless people. I wasn’t expecting to see that here. 

Looking back on your past year living in Hamilton, what’s been your favourite ‘uniquely Hamilton’ event or experience?

DF: We went to a Tiger-Cats game and to a Forge game. There is still lots more for us to do.

KVH: I feel like I haven’t done that yet. I want to see music while I am here.

What’s one thing you might take home from Canada?

DF: Maple syrup. We make pancakes just to have the maple syrup and we fight over it at the table. 

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