A suicide is a difficult thing to speak publicly about, especially in a small community. The questions that are usually asked when researching a story about why, what and how, must be asked of those left behind who are still deep in the throes of grief and loss. In many cases, the family chooses to remain silent and small towns being what they are, people tend to draw their own conclusions and sometimes rumour and conjecture can run rampant.
On Oct. 21, Hans van den Heuvel better known in Lake Cowichan as “Hans the butcher” took his own life. His wife and partner of 14 years, Jean Osborne, felt that it was important that his story be told.
Born February 7th, 1956 in Oss, the Netherlands Hans was described as “a strong and capable young man who was always challenging himself”. As a young man he was an avid and talented soccer and table-tennis player, loved to cycle and took on any new experience with a genuine love of life. He was well educated and fluent in four languages.
His training as a butcher began at an early age and included all facets of the business from meat cutting, making deli products to proper storage and displays. He took additional training to be a meat inspector and worked as one for a time for the Dutch government. Being a young man of imagination and ambition, he found that routine and repetitous work of a meat inspector was not for him and chose instead to immigrate to Canada. He arrived in Canada in April of 1981 at the age of 25, with a sponsor, a few thousand guilders in his pocket and the desire to make a good life for himself in his adopted country.
He worked in Campbell River for a time, and then became the Meat Manager of Quadra Foods on Quadra Island before moving to Lake Cowichan and opening Hans’ Butcher Shop and Deli.
Hans was a renaissance man with varied interests and skills. Each morning he began his day by perusing his Dutch, hometown newspaper online so that he was up to date when speaking to friends and family back in Holland.
“He was global in his views and perspective,” said Jean, his wife.
He collected coins and stamps, made driftwood clocks and enjoyed classical music and art. As a business man and entrepreneur, he had a strong personal code. Besides cutting meat in his scrupulously clean shop, he also cut and wrapped game for local hunters and produced specialty meat products from his own recipes.
“Hans always said, I don’t care if a person coming in is spending $2 or $200, you serve them the same,” said Randy Liboiron, butcher’s apprenticeship at Hans’ Butcher Shop. “He had a standard of care, customer service and dedication to the quality of the products he sold that was huge.”
He was a happy man, cheerful and hardworking with a great sense of humour. A member of both the Royal Canadian Legion in Lake Cowichan and Duncan Dart League, his prowess at the dart board was unquestioned. In 1998 he met the love of his life, Jean Osborne and the two enjoyed 14 wonderful years together.
“In all aspects of his life, he lived to a higher standard,” said Reverend Vikki Marrs, a personal friend.
On Sept. 4, 2012 CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) and U.S. meat inspectors discovered E. coli bacteria in product shipped from the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alberta. Over the next ten days corrective measures and stricter measures were put in place by the CFIA at the Brooks plant.
By Sept. 13 XL Foods had issued a Health Hazard Alert to advise customers of a “beef trimmings” recall for three days production and two cases of related human illness were reported.
Over the next two weeks the investigation escalated and more related illness cases were reported and by September 27th the CFIA suspended XL Food Inc.’s licence to operate the Alberta plant. A massive beef recall was now underway, in the end resulting in more than 1700 beef products being recalled and 2000 XL employees being laid off.
During this time Hans was in constant contact with his suppliers, Penguin Meat Supply of White Rock, B.C.
“The media coverage was intense, it was on the news constantly and Hans was worried that somehow, something might have slipped by him and someone could get sick,” said his wife, Jean.
His agitation and worry increased as the media storm continued.
“He was basically shell shocked during this time,” said Liboiron. “His concern that without his knowledge something might have gotten in there that was bad was just eating him up. The weeks of this pressure were just too much for him.”
He spoke of his worries constantly to both his wife, Jean and his apprentice butcher, Liboiron who tried to reassure him that he had taken every possible precaution and there was nothing to worry about.
“He felt an imagined guilt, that something might have slipped by him and it began to take its toll,” said Jean.
Worried that the stress was beginning to affect her husband, Jean insisted that he see a doctor. Unfortunately his own GP had retired so they went to a walk in-clinic in Duncan to seek help. Hans was prescribed something to help with the anxiety he was suffering.
On October 21st, while nearly a million pounds of beef was being dumped in a landfill in Alberta, Hans van den Heuvel took his own life, passing away at the age of 56.
“He was ultimately overwhelmed with caring concern for his wife, his family and his community,” said Reverend Vikki Marrs to a packed hall at the Celebration of Han’s Life.” There are no trite words or easy answers. We need hope and we need it now. But above all, love remains.”
The tragedy of his passing will leave a hole in the fabric of this community. Hans was dedicated to his family, his business and his community. When local organizations needed donations for fundraising, Hans was always there. For twenty years he was behind the counter greeting customers with a ready smile and the best products and service he could provide.