On my recent swing through the Canadian Maritime provinces, no stop was more moving than visiting Pier 21 in Halifax. This historic spot was the first point of entry for over 1 million new Canadians between 1928 in 1971. Today it is, fittingly, home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration. With immigration issues constantly dominating headlines around the world, visiting Pier 21 should be on every traveller’s list.
A New Beginning
Visiting Pier 21 and the Museum of Canadian Immigration is best done through an included guided tour. These 30-minute walks are done by knowledgeable guides who take you through the journey these new Canadians faced. It is covered in touching detail, from fleeing pre-and post-war Europe to being processed and shipped out on trains across a vast land to their new homes. This includes mock-ups of the ships and trains used on either side of Pier 21. There’s also testimony from those who made the trip.
Although much of the pier has been redone in one way or another, there is a hallway that is still intact with original flooring and walls in which all immigrants passed through. It was also the same spot where many Canadian soldiers left to fight in Europe during World War II. Many of these soldiers did not return. It was an eerie mix of national pride and loss. A new beginning for so many and a sad end for those fighting to support the very people coming in.
The Canadian Immigration Story
The Canadian Museum of Immigration’s other main exhibit is the Canadian Immigration Story. There you will find Canada’s immigration history on a massive multimedia map as well as many interesting success stories. Also, importantly, the failures where Canada turned its back on those in need. This includes the mistreatment of First Nation people and the Komagata Maru and its 376 migrants turned away in 1914. This is well done and should be recognized as it is equally important to acknowledge the failures as it is to applaud the success. How else will we, as a country and human race, learn?
A personal highlight for me while visiting Pier 21 was taking a sample test similar to what new immigrants take when seeking Canadian citizenship. You can choose a 10 or 20-question test which quizzes you on everything from politics to geography. Curious? You can take a sample test here.
Possibly the coolest part of visiting Pier 21 is the Family History Center. There, staff members are happy to help trace your family’s history and possible ties to Pier 21. I found tracing family lineage fascinating while searching out Erin’s family history in Mor Hungary a couple of years ago. That trip took us to her great-grandfather’s small town. There we discovered where he went to school and found the house he left behind. While visiting Pier 21 we were able to continue that story and pull up the ship her family arrived on complete with names and signatures. So very cool.
An Important Message for All
Even though visiting Pier 21 is visiting a place where one in five Canadians can trace their roots, the message of hope and acceptance should not be missed by any visitor to Halifax, Canadian or not. While on tour and while visiting Pier 21 you get an overwhelming sense of why immigration is so important to Canada and beyond. It is an incredible message to preach, especially in a time where many are looking to build walls and limit those that need help the most.
I hope those visiting Halifax take the time to read the stories and understand that we all come from somewhere. Also, at some point, may need a new home and may need help. Pier 21 is located next-door to the visiting cruise ships. I am hopeful this message is received.
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Although my time visiting Pier 21 was put together by Discover Halifax,
the experience, opinions, and history lessons are my own.