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James Kamstra

Consulting the Environment


Jonathan van Bilsen

October 24, 2021

Over the past 8 years of writing this column, I have had the pleasure of interviewing many different, and sometimes unique, personalities. This month is no different, as James Kamstra relayed his life experiences and a brand new book, which he has recently penned and has just released.

For those of you not familiar with James, he is a terrestrial ecologist and environmental consultant, and a very well-known personality in the world of ecology. I was quite surprised when I picked up a copy of his new book, ‘Can’t Sit Still’. 

I expected the book to focus on James’ area of expertise, basically the environment. You can imagine how surprised I was when I began reading it, and discovered it was a historical memoir of his father’s quest to leave Europe, relocate in Canada and build a mini empire in the Durham Region.

We should start with a little background on James. Born in Oshawa, the eldest of three sons, he did an undergrad at Trent and roomed with a Latin American archaeology student, Jaime Awe. Jaime went on to become a very well-known archaeologist, not only in his homeland of Belize, but throughout Latin America..

No doubt, Jaime had an influence on James’ decision to travel to Belize for a year, and do an undergrad thesis on a rare animal known as Baird’s Taper. The experience led him to further his studies in ecology, which he pursued, and eventually turned into his career.

His parents owned a landscape company in South Durham, which is where James spent his off hours during high school years. Throughout university, he started his first ‘real’ job, as he called it, working as a park naturalist, stationed in Algonquin Park.

After graduation and his stint in Belize, James came back to Ontario. He was offered a position with the Ministry of Natural Resources, as an Ecologist on Pelee Island. From there he moved to Chatham, as an environmental consultant with Aecom, a multinational engineering firm, where he still works today.

I asked James what type of consulting he did, and he explained it was anything from tailing dams in the mining industry to golf course development. “The environment is so critical to our well-being, and I am so glad that companies are taking it serious.” James spoke with a concerned passion in his voice.

So why a book about his father? James explained it did not start as a a book. He simply wanted to tell the story of his father’s struggles and successes, so James’ children had an understanding of what he went through. 

“I met a book editor, who suggested I turn my document into a book, as the story would be of interest to everyone, not just my family.”  I started to read the book and found it quite captivating.

James’ father was a Dutch immigrant, raised during the tumultuous war years, in the Netherlands. A country which at the time, offered little opportunity for people with entrepreneurial tendencies.

The book goes on to explain how Jim, born as Tjebbe (a Dutch derivative of James), grew up in an extremely strict household, dominated by his authoritarian father. Jim’s father owned a small produce shop in a village, in the north Netherlands province of Friesland. “My grandfather was extremely religious,” James explained. “After years of German occupation, the allies bombarded a train carrying Nazi supplies. Food and dry goods were scattered all over the countryside. Everyone in the village raced to get as much as they could, but my grandfather forbade my father and his brothers from taking anything. He said it was stealing.” I could see in James face, the turmoil his father must have felt, as the war years in the Netherlands, had been extremely difficult for the people.

He made his way to Canada in the 1950s, and landed in Nova Scotia. Shocked by the rugged terrain, a severe contrast to the flatness of the Netherlands, he secured a job in a green house. His father had taught Jim about landscaping, so he was a natural when it came to working in a greenhouse.

A hurricane devastated the east coast, and the green houses were demolished. Jim decided to make his way east and settled in Oshawa. He landed a job at General Motors, responsible for taking care of all the landscaping for their buildings. It was a good job, but the entrepreneurial Dutchman wanted more.

He began work in a nursery, and soon decided he could do the job better on his own. It was the beginning of Kamstra Landscaping, which is still going strong today.

The book goes into detail, with a humourous slant. James has captured the essence of what so many families have gone through. He has documented some of his father’s greatest escapades, such as crashing an airplane at the Nottawasaga Inn, when they went for dinner, or searching for bird eggs as a young boy.

I found my interview with James to be quite interesting, and his book wonderfully captivating. It never seizes to amaze me how many interesting people live right in our own backyard.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.

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