Canada Immigration Museum

My Halifax City Tour, expertly narrated by Allen Mackenzie, a passionate Haligonian in a kilt, had provided me with a great overview of this city, and my visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic had added to my knowledge of Halifax, particularly of its connection to the Titanic and the 1917 Explosion. Still mulling over the historic significance of this city, the largest population centre on Canada’s East Coast, I sat down close to the waterfront to finally have lunch and strengthen myself after an intense introduction to the city.

On this sunny, fairly warm day I had a seat on the outdoor patio of Stayner’s Wharf, one of the restaurants on the Waterfront, located right next to the Halifax – Dartmouth Ferry Terminal. I was finally able to catch a rest, relax in the autumn sun and get ready for my lunch. I ordered the “Captain’s Brunch”, a pan-seared brunch-size portion of Atlantic salmon with one lightly fried egg, creamy whipped potatoes topped with a bit of Hollandaise sauce, served with a slice of tomato and cucumber. It was a very satisfying lunch, looking out onto Halifax’ waterfront, with a view of the Theodore Too, Halifax’ famous TV-show inspired tugboat.

I took about half an hour before I got up and made my way southwards on the Harbourwalk, Halifax’s 3.8 km boardwalk that stretches all the way from Casino Nova Scotia in the north to the Pier 21 National Historic Site in the south. More than 2.5 million visitors walk the Harbourwalk annually. $31 million were invested in order to purchase and rejuvenate properties and to renew infrastructure. The Harbourwalk is composed of a series of public parks, wharves and plazas all connected by a boardwalk system that is primarily wooden to reflect the historic marine character of Halifax’s waterfront which is now easily accessible to the public. People were out in full force, enjoying the pleasant weather. Several street comedians were performing right next to the waterfront, drawing huge crowds of onlookers.

The Halifax Harbour actually is one of the world’s best natural harbours as it extends almost 20 km inland into the Bedford Basin. Several islands are located in the harbour. The closest to the harbour entrance is George’s Island which has been designated a National Historic Site although it is not currently accessible to the public. This island has long played an important role in the harbour’s defense system.

McNabs Island is located farther out in the harbour and is accessible via a ferry from the Eastern Passage or via a charter boat from Cable Wharf. This island was settled in the past although the homesteads are now abandoned. A lighthouse, ruined fortress and batteries as well as sand beaches can be found on McNabs Island. One more island, Lawlor’s Island, is located close to the mainland. It never had any military installations and today is a protected nature area.

The Halifax harbour also features a deportation cross, reminiscent of the famous deportation cross at the Grand Pré, the original deportation site of the Acadian Expulsion. And being Canada’s major seaport on the east coast, it has always had a strategic military role and even today features key military installations.

As I was walking along Harbourwalk, I saw various ships passing in and out of the narrow passage, but the most interesting one was a military submarine, with all the sailors standing on deck, often waving to the fascinated audience on land. I was wondering when the sailors would disappear below deck, but I lost sight of them as I walked southwards towards the pier buildings.

Halifax is a true centre of ocean transport due to being blessed with one of the world’s deepest and largest natural harbours. The harbour’s waters remain ice-free and experience minimal tides and the port generally is the first inbound and the last outbound port to North America from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. It is also a major cruise ship centre: in 2005 108 cruise vessels with over 188,000 visitors docked in Halifax, causing a major economic infusion for the city.

In line with the ocean transportation theme, a monument to a famous Halifax resident is located just south of the entrance gate to the Halifax Port area: Samuel Cunard (1787 to 1865) , a native son of Halifax, is forever commemorated in a bronze statue that prominently presides over the Port of Halifax. Cunard became a Nova Scotia shipping magnate, whose Cunard Steamship Line would run many of the famous transatlantic ocean liners in the 1800s. His primary competitor was the White Star Line, whose ill-fated ocean liner Titanic sank 750 km off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1912. After this disaster, Cunard dominated the transatlantic passenger shipping and his company became one of the most important companies in the world. The Cunard line’s fortune began to decline in the 1950s when air travel became popular, but over the last few years has experienced a major revival with the world renowned Queen Mary 2, the first ocean liner to be built in 30 years, and the largest passenger liner ever built. In 1998 Cunard was taken over by Carnival Corporation, but the Cunard name can still be seen on the side of the Queen Mary 2.

I was in luck, because as I strolled closer to the pier buildings in the Halifax Port area, I saw that the Queen Mary 2 was indeed in town. An impressive ship, it appears to be about 8 to 10 stories tall and towers over the port buildings. Right here, with the Queen Mary 2 as a backdrop, I had reached my next destination: Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum.

Upon arrival I connected with Stefani Angelopoulos, Communications Manager for the museum who was so kind to give me a personalized tour through this unique facility. Pier 21 is the Canadian equivalent to Ellis Island: more than a million immigrants came through its doors between 1928 and 1971. Until its opening in the late 1990s, the building sat empty as a warehouse and was finally turned into a museum in 1999 and designated as a National Historic Site. It was also the embarkation point for about 500,000 soldiers who were transported from here to fight in the Second World War. Halifax’ strategic importance in linking Canada with Europe became evident once again.

Stefani informed me that between 1942 and 1948, more than 48,000 War Brides came to Canada from Britain and other countries in Europe and they brought 22,000 children with them. They had fallen in love with Canadian soldiers and were ready to start their new life in Canada. The vast majority arrived in 1946, 60 years ago, and made their first connection with their new homeland right here in Halifax, at Pier 21. Many then took a train from here to start their new lives in other parts of the country.

I learned that to commemorate the 60 year anniversary, Via Rail came up with a special event in celebration of this occasion: the 2006 War Bride Train which is scheduled to bring hundreds of Canadian War Brides back to Pier 21 where their lives in Canada began. On November 6 the train will depart in Montreal and arrive on November 7 in Halifax where there will be great opportunities for celebration and reminiscing for hundreds of War Brides. Stefani commented that Pier 21 is linked to so many moving human stories that sometimes it is hard to keep a dry eye.

We started our tour at the Research Centre downstairs which has a collection of photographs of over 90% of the ships that transported immigrants to Halifax from 1928 to 1971. Images and newspaper photographs tell the diverse stories of immigrants, mostly from Western Europe and the Mediterranean area. Many images also relate to the almost half a million Canadian troops that departed from Pier 21 in Halifax to join the war effort in Europe during the Second World War.

The Research Centre also provides public reference for all ocean
immigration records from 1925 to 1935 and many Canadians specifically come to Pier 21 to research their parent’s or grandparent’s arrival records in Canada. Four computer terminals provide access to the website, to the stories database, the ship database and other electronic resources related to immigration. Microfilm records contain the responses to 28 questions that a prospective immigrant would have to answer prior to being allowed to enter Canada. These microfilms are some of the most popular records in the Research Centre.

Although I have no personal connection to Pier 21, having arrived by myself in Toronto without family in 1986, Carrie-Ann Smith, Pier 21’s Manager of Research, provided me with a copy of the entire chapter on German and Austrian immigration, taken from the Encyclopedia of Canada’s People’s, edited by Paul R. Magocsi, and published in 1999 by University of Toronto Press. I found out that about 31,000 Austrian immigrants came through Pier 21 from 1928 to 1971, compared to 1,152,400 immigrants from the United Kingdom and 527,000 immigrants from the United States. In addition to 48,000 War Brides and their children, many refugees and displaced persons also came to Canada during these years, including about 69,700 Jewish immigrants, many of whom were victims of the Holocaust. In addition, Canada also welcomed about 3,000 Evacuee Children from the United Kingdom who were evacuated during WWII due to the heavy bombing raids and the perceived threat of invasion. More than 250,000 children were supposed to be evacuated, but one of the ships transporting children was sunk by enemy ships so the program was cut short.

Another category of immigrant were the Home Children: more than 100,000 left Great Britain between the late 1860s and the mid 1930s due to the extreme poverty in their home country. These children would typically be employed either as domestic help or farm labourers, and the practice was already dwindling when Pier 21 opened in 1928. Stories representing the almost half a million WWII veterans who embarked for military service in Europe from Pier 21 during the Second World War, can also be found here. The human stories of so many different types of people provide fascinating insights into one of the most turbulent times of human history and Canada’s role in it.

Pier 21 is certainly one of Canada’s most unique museums, testimony to the key role that immigration has played and continues to play in this country. You enter the museum and arrive in a large exhibition hall, the Kenneth C. Rowe Heritage Hall, a multi-purpose area that can also be rented out for private functions which holds up to 600 guests. Up the elevators you arrive in the main exhibit area which features a wide variety of exhibits illustrating the immigration experience. The Rudolph Peter Batty Exhibition Hall allows you to retrace the steps of an immigrant who just arrived at the Halifax Harbour, complete with wooden waiting benches and an immigration officer’s desk. The Wall of Ships features images of many of the ocean liners that used to transport thousands of immigrants to their new home country. A replica of a Canadian National Railway car conjures up memories of the train journeys that so many immigrants took across Canada to their new homes in different parts of the country.

Six video booths provide access to video clips featuring the story of immigrants from different places. As a Canadian immigrant from Austria, I sat down in the first video booth where an Austrian video testimonial was being played and I saw the story of an Austrian immigrant , a man who had come to make his life in Canada in the 1950s. His emotion and gratefulness to his new country were clearly visible.