Pier 21 A Canadian Gateway

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The day before yesterday I visited Pier 21, one of the two main reasons my wife and I decided to visit Halifax. I wanted to see the place where my parents first set foot in Canada.

This is my first time to Halifax and I am taken with the warmth and forthrightness of the Haligonians. They are a courteous lot. Cars stop when they see you waiting to cross the street and people go out of their way

to be helpful. The city, although studded with budding towers, has a cosy small town feel.

In my hotel room in Halifax on the harbour after making some calls and sending emails, I look out my window at the building called Pier 21, now a museum.
At one time between 1928 and 1971 Pier 21 was the gateway for over a million immigrants and has now been turned into a museum beautifully commemorating all the many journeys. My parent we’re among those that made the week long sea journey to eventually walk through the doors of Pier 21 and set foot in Canada . It is Canada’s version of Ellis island.
During our visit to Pier 21 we viewed an incredibly moving documentary detailing the stories of some of the more recent immigrants who have made a life for themselves in Canada. I have to confess I had a difficult time keeping my eyes from welling up as did many others in the theatre as we watched and listened to real stories of challenging and poignant journeys. I kept thinking to myself if this experience is so difficult in recent times how challenging and difficult must it have been in troubled earlier times with wars, poverty, and greater prejudice. After the documentary, we took a guided tour of the museum led by our gregarious guide George who himself had emigrated from Holland at the age of 17 with his parents in 1951; the very first time that he passed through the doors of Pier 21.

Our engaging host walked us through full size replicas of the tiny tourist class’s cabins on the boats that took many immigrants across the Atlantic, and scale replicas of the insides of trains that many of the travellers embarked as they headed out from Halifax to find their new Canadian homes.

He showed us the doors that they came through as they arrived in Pier 21, as well as luggage, and storage crates of belongings and artifacts that had been donated to the museum by many (including George himself) who had made the journey to their new home. Ironically some of the large storage crates packed full of belongings were never fully utilized because the new residences for some of the early immigrants without contacts or relatives in Canada were often sheds, barns, and other cramped quarters.

My own father emigrated with not much more than the typical suit case and $25.00 in his pocket. One family friend I knew, who has recently passed away, related to me how he had arrived with just the shirt on his back, in the dead of winter; with no coat, no understanding of English, and without any money left over. Regardless of the great difficulties they all persevered, thrived, and prospered in their new found home, to become employees, business owners, citizens and taxpayers.

We had the chance to
speak with our guide George after the Pier 21 tour and he confided to us that many of his contemporaries from the 50’s who had made the journey, found it very difficult to talk about their early experiences and it was only after considerable coaxing that they did open up and tell their stories, allowing them to be recorded. These stories are important to keep alive especially at times when we may become overly complacent or feel overly entitled. We have not really had any great trials of this scale as a generation. At least not yet.

The common theme among the many that made the journey to Pier 21 according to George, regardless of the hardships, was that they were all glad they had made it to become Canadian citizens, to find a better life for themselves, and for their children. In a nutshell, they are proud to be Canadians. Pier 21 is a worthwhile and important reminder. The trip to its’ halls reminded me to be thankful for being born Canadian, and for the sacrifices made by many. As some one once said: Be kind to each other, especially to the traveller far away from home.

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