Explore Canada’s rich immigration history at one of its primary entry points
As my father, Hillar, and I wait for the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to open, the MS Serenade of the Seas, an enormous cruise ship nearly three-football-fields long, is disgorging its passengers next door. They’re mostly retirees with broad American accents dressed against the cool spring drizzle in jeans, fleece and Gortex jackets. Some are already posing for their first Halifax selfie; others are being herded aboard tour buses.
From 1928 to 1971 it was a much different scene at Pier 21, when it was the first taste of Canada for millions of immigrants arriving (mostly) from Europe, not to mention the point of departure for half a million Canadian military personnel heading off to fight World War II.
My father was one of those immigrants, landing at Pier 21 on June 29, 1951 on the considerably smaller MS Gripsholm from Sweden, where he and my grandmother had been living since fleeing war-torn Estonia in 1944. Grandma feared being sent back to her Russian-occupied homeland and so she decided to put more distance between herself and Joseph Stalin. The entire Atlantic Ocean seemed like a good start.
Opening for business on March 28, 1928, Pier 21 was part of a three-pier, two-story, 210,000 square-foot building that was needed to dock the increasingly large transatlantic ocean liners and process the exponential numbers of immigrants seeking a new life in Canada.
Hillar Vellend with his mother, aboard the Gripsholm in 1951.
The stories of these people are told in many forms at the museum, which opened in 1999 and became an official national museum in 2010. The building, the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada, is often compared to New York’s Ellis Island, and the sense of history here is palpable.
The original main exhibition room focuses on Pier 21 as an immigration shed with recreations of the whole experience from ship to train. One of the more memorable exhibits is what people decided to bring on their one-way journey – imagine trying to pack your whole life into a single steamer trunk. With sweeping views of the Halifax harbour, it’s easy to picture these wobbly-legged travelers, terrified of the uncertainty ahead, yet grateful to be in a country where bombs don’t fall from the sky.
” ‘Not anxious to farm – a dweller in cities.’ Yep, sounds like my tribe.”
The museum underwent a major renovation recently, effectively doubling its size.
“The Canadian Immigration Hall expands beyond the Pier 21 years to explore the broader story of immigration to Canada,” says Marie Chapman, Pier 21’s CEO. “The museum represents, not only for those who passed through this historic gateway, but for newcomers arriving in Canada every day, and for all Canadians, a place of new beginnings.”
The Immigration Hall makes Pier 21 far more compelling, and I found myself lingering in the room and pouring over fascinating media like a clipping from a 1910 newspaper that explained new immigrants to Canadians by stereotypes. I got a good chuckle when they described the Russian Jew, which makes up the other half of my family, as, “Not anxious to farm – a dweller in cities.” Yep, sounds like my tribe.
Pier 21 doesn’t sugarcoat the blacker pages in Canada’s immigration history. I learned of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamer ship that arrived in Vancouver in 1914 with 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab. Only 24 were admitted to Canada and the rest were sent back to India. There were thousands of others who never made it into the country due to racist policies like the Chinese head tax. It’s a powerful reminder of why we should continue to welcome the less fortunate with open arms.
If you want to look into your own history, stop in the Scotiabank Family History Centre on the ground floor before you leave. Going beyond Pier 21, it can access records from all ports in Canada, some of them going back to 1865.
As a museum, Pier 21 may not have the dazzle of dinosaurs or the lure of rare artifacts, but the immigrant stories told here are priceless. In a society that drinks $5 coffees and complains about the strength of WiFi, it’s easy to forget about the real struggles that our ancestors went through to provide this charmed life. Pier 21 brings it into sharp focus.
Back outside the museum, I think of my grandmother, Anne Vellend, who escaped Estonia in a rocky Baltic Sea swarming with U-boats. I think of my great-grandfather, Oscar Weinstein, who fled the vicious pogroms of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. I also think of my great-grandparents, Israel and Esther Cohen, who left the shtetl of Lutsk, Russia (now Ukraine) for Brandon, Manitoba. And I am acutely verklempt imagining my 7-year-old father docking at Halifax 64 years ago. As the descendant of all these immigrants, Pier 21 is a profoundly moving experience.
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
1055 Marginal Rd., 902-425-7770