Tuesday 28 June 2016

Pier 21: Canada's Front Door

I’m proudly Canadian! I love this country and all it stands for. It’s a vast land and I’m blessed to have travelled it from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If I had to describe my country in one word, it is: awesome!

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Canada is not where I started though. Like millions of Canadians, I came from elsewhere. I was lucky I know, to have had parents who had the support, means (through exceptional hard work), and the foresight to come to this great land. I am an immigrant.

The year was 1967. Canada was celebrating its 100th anniversary as a nation.

One, little two, little three Canadians….

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It was February. The dead of winter. Our little family of three had boarded a flight on an island in the middle of the north Atlantic. A few hours later we landed in Montreal, completely unprepared for the Canadian winter. No boots. No gloves. No touques. Nothing that would have provided adequate protection from winter in the great white north.

I was a small child then, but recall clearly as we stepped off the plane, an airline employee wrapping a blanket around me. It’s a memory I doubt I will ever forget.

Canada has a long and proud history of opening its doors to people in need. It’s a tradition that continues today and one we, as a nation, are proud of. It is in fact, what makes us Canadian. Today, most newcomers arrive by aircraft, landing directly in a major city, as we did. But that was not always the case.

Between 1928 and 1971, over one million immigrants entered the country through what became known as Canada’s “front door”, Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Passing through its doors were refugees, troops, wartime evacuees, war brides and their children -- people who, for whatever reasons, were seeking a better life. It was also from Pier 21 that almost 500,000 Canadian troops left for Europe during World War 2 -- 50,000 would not return home.

Everyone entered or left Canada through this door

The facility opened on March 28, 1928. Holland America’s, SS Nieuw Amsterdam became the first ship to bring immigrants through Pier 21. The ocean terminals in Halifax harbour had freight piers, grain elevators, a train station, and over 220,000 square feet of space allotted for immigration.

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The immigration complex had medical and detention quarters, an assembly hall, customs, a railway booking office and a telegraph office. The Red Cross was onsite.  

There was a restaurant where meals could be purchased before boarding special passenger trains made up of dozens of colonist cars – coaches designed specifically for moving immigrants inexpensively across the country.  

For the more affluent passengers, a direct connection between Pier 21 terminal and Halifax’s railway station was available. From there, passengers could board regularly scheduled trains to their final destinations.

The 1950s saw a peak in immigration as thousands of postwar Europeans left their homelands behind. An addition to the facility was added to handle the extra traffic. But just as quickly, a decline happened as more and more people began arriving by plane.

The last group of immigrants who made their way through Pier 21 were 100 Cubans who, in 1970, defected in Gander International Airport (Newfoundland). They were given accommodations at Pier 21 while their refugee claims were processed. 

In 1971, the SS Nieuw Amsterdam (II), which bore the same name as the first ship to bring immigrants to the pier 21 in 1928, was the last ship to bring immigrants to Halifax harbour.  Pier 21 closed shortly thereafter.

Today, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site and home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration. Tours are available at various times throughout the day led by knowledgeable guides. On our tour, we score big with our tour guide, George Zwaagstra.

George arrived from The Netherlands in 1952. He entered Canada through its “front door” -- Pier 21. He shares his personal experience. He shows us the passport he used to enter Canada. He and his family were able to walk out of Pier 21 once all their paperwork was completed, as they were staying in Halifax. George’s brother was already settled here. No need for overnight stays or detention.

George tells us of the great number people who made their entrance into Canada through Pier 21. Then he adds, “Only 10,000 were sent back.” I detect pride in his voice.

Pointing to a display area, he informs his little group of followers, “Immigrants were allowed to bring books. But not that one.” Everyone looks. Ulysses. Ulysses! Banned. Until 1949.

If you’re into genealogy, the Scotiabank Family History Center (SFHC), located on the main floor, is a great place to conduct research. Basic information for anyone arriving through a Canadian port between 1865 and 1935 can be accessed. Staff members are available to help locate historical documents.

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As far as I know, I do not have any relatives who arrived through Pier 21. So as helpful as the staff is, I don’t need assistance. Or so I think.

“Would you like to request your complete immigration record?” asks a cheerful young woman in a crisp uniform.

“No. That’s okay,” I respond.

“Are you sure? It’s free.”

Free? Really? In that case, sure.”

I have no idea what my “complete immigration record” is, but I know it’s certainly not free. It is however, another way I can reap the benefits of paying my Federal taxes.

I can’t wait to receive it!

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