Passage Through Pier 21

May 1, 2000 by Laura Byrne Paquet

Steaming into Halifax aboard the SS Stavangerfjord in January 1946 is an experience Patricia McLean will never forget. The Sudbury, Ont., resident was a 21-year-old war bride and she remembers holding her infant son in her arms while looking at the bright lights ringing the harbour. It was a far cry from blacked-out, war-torn Britain.

Once inside the terminal–at Pier 21–she and her compatriots enjoyed the warm welcome they received from the Canadian Red Cross, and the seemingly endless supply of food. “It was like a dreamland. You could have anything you wanted.”

That sense of optimism pervades the recollections of many people who first set foot on Canadian soil or who reacquainted themselves with their homeland at Pier 21 after years away at war. From 1928 until it closed in 1971, Pier 21 welcomed more than a million new Canadians. During WW II, almost half a million servicemen passed through the pier on their way to Europe. Those lucky enough to return arrived back in Canada along with a tide of war brides, refugees and displaced persons. “Under the cover of its drab exterior, Pier 21 served as the stage upon which unfolded some of the most exciting chapters of 20th century Canadian history,” wrote Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and John P. LeBlanc in their history, Pier 21: The Gateway That Changed Canada.

Indeed, babies born at sea saw their first land here and some frightened travellers–overcome with exhaustion or disease–died here. Immigrants arrived with crates of belongings or just the clothes on their backs. British “guest children” came in the early 1940s seeking safety from the war at home; they would spend a large part of their childhood in a foreign land.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, the pier was Canada’s busiest port of entry. In subsequent years, quick and affordable air travel drastically reduced ocean liner traffic. By 1970, the steady stream of passenger ships calling at Halifax had slowed to a trickle. In March 1971, the pier’s era as Canada’s welcome mat ended with little fanfare, and the once-bustling terminal became a warehouse until a group of Haligonians decided to bring its history to life.

On Canada Day 1999, the cavernous building echoed with the laughter of children and the cries of adults as Pier 21 re-opened its doors as a national historic site. “We’re not a museum. We’re an interactive high-tech centre that will teach your great, great-grandchildren what it is like to arrive in a new country with no language and no money,” explains Ruth Goldbloom, past president of the Pier 21 Society.

The society estimates that one in five Canadians has a link to Pier 21. Author Peter C. Newman passed through the portals as a child fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940. Other famous Canadians who can trace their heritage to the pier are Royal Canadian Air Farce star Luba Goy, actor Al Waxman and broadcaster Hana Gartner.

Visitors to the 40,000-square-foot site can watch a 25-minute movie about the immigrant experience. They can explore the reconstructed deck of a WW II ship and research their family history in the resource centre. Videotaped interviews with immigrants, soldiers and others help bring the pier’s past to life.

Wartime servicemen and women had the most atypical experience. Unlike most passengers, their departure was secretive. Convoys escorted their ships across the U-boat infested Atlantic. Those who survived came home to a welcome as public and emotional as their departure had been private and silent.

This year, many veterans will have the chance to revisit the pier during The Royal Canadian Legion’s 38th dominion convention slated for June 11-15 in Halifax. For everyone other than military personnel, the Pier 21 experience followed a predictable pattern. After disembarking from their ships, passengers tumbled into the reception hall, a cavernous space filled with rows of benches. “I will never forget the instant I stepped, for the first time, on Canadian soil,” recalls Spanish immigrant Antonio Saez Jiménez on Pier 21’s Web site. He arrived at Pier 21 in September 1958, and returned in the 1990s before the pier was restored. “When…I went back to Pier 21, so quiet and empty, I could feel the noises of children, of parents calling them in different languages. There were so many people around Pier 21 then.”

By the 1950s, some 45,000 immigrants passed through the facility each year. The tremendous volume of people meant that immigration officers, health inspectors and customs agents had to use some rather unappealing methods to keep the lines moving. Until the late 1950s, hand luggage was locked away in wire cages until it could be inspected. Passengers with incomplete documentation or other difficulties were detained in on-site dormitories until the authorities could resolve the situation and that sometimes meant deporting the person. Bars on the immigration shed’s windows kept potential illegal immigrants from escaping. Peter C. Newman recalls that successful landed immigrants were tagged “like surplus merchandise at an Eaton’s bargain basement sale.” The tag listed the person’s country of origin and destination.

In 1951, a young mother stood on the deck of the Anna Salem as it entered port. Suddenly, her baby son plucked off his cap and threw it into the harbour. In amazement, she watched as two men on shore leaped into a boat and tried, unsuccessfully, to find the tiny hat.

The unpredictability of ships’ schedules could make things unexpectedly hectic. One Christmas Eve in the 1950s, two ships arrived almost simultaneously. Instead of simply processing the hordes of arrivals and sending them on their way, cafeteria staff prepared a Christmas dinner for 1,800 people.

The following decade, the people of Halifax provided a wedding dress and arranged a reception and a honeymoon for a young Czechoslovakian couple who had fled Prague on their wedding day in 1968, hours ahead of the Soviet tanks.

However, it sometimes seemed that no words or actions could bridge the gap between the arrivals and the Canadians who greeted them. In 1947, a group welcomed the first orphaned Jewish children to arrive in Canada after the war. Canada, justly shamed by its almost total refusal to admit Jews before and during WW II, would eventually open its doors to 1,123 orphaned young survivors of the Holocaust.

Hearing a few words in a language they recognized was like a beacon in the confusion of the assembly hall for many new immigrants. Local clergymen, nuns and volunteers who had a facility for languages were in demand day and night to act as translators.

Pier 21 tried to provide just about anything a new arrival might need after spending a week or more on a ship. There was a currency exchange and people were on hand to reassemble trunks and baggage that had fallen apart on the journey. There was also a nursery staffed by Red Cross volunteers.

Once accepted, the next step for most immigrants was to board a train for other parts of Canada. There was a CNR ticket office inside the building and a walkway connected Pier 21 to the train station. Patricia McLean remembers her 1946 train trip. She says when she saw the snow, she thought she was in the Arctic. When the conductor told her it would take three days to reach Winnipeg, she was convinced he was joking.

She and a group of fellow war brides crowded into a train carriage with their luggage and children. McLean was no stranger to trains. She had met her husband, airman Malcolm Neil McLean, on a train going through Sheffield, England, during an air raid.

In the end, the only awkward part of her homecoming happened when one of her husband’s relatives excitedly informed her that they were going to give her a shower later in the week. Dreadfully offended that her new family thought she was dirty, she allowed herself to be hustled down to the local church hall for what she thought would be a humiliating experience. Of course, she was astonished to realize that the shower involved receiving wedding and baby presents!

All newcomers to Canada, not just those who arrived at the pier, have stories to share. It was a passionate conviction that these stories should not be lost that spurred the people behind Pier 21’s resurrection to persevere in their efforts to restore the dilapidated old building as a showcase for Canada’s immigration history.

The renaissance of Pier 21 began in the late 1980s when a group of former pier and immigration employees started tossing around ideas for reviving the place. John P. LeBlanc, who co-authored the history of the Pier, was the Pier 21 Society’s founding president. His connections with the pier were many and varied. The former Royal Canadian Air Force member left Pier 21 in September 1942 with 14,000 other service personnel aboard the Queen Elizabeth. His wife arrived at Pier 21 in 1946 as a war bride.

Ruth Goldbloom is well known in Halifax for her fund-raising efforts on behalf of the United Way and Mount Saint Vincent University, and she and LeBlanc went to work immediately by putting together a business plan. When they realized their plan would cost $9 million, they were aghast. “It could have been $9 billion for what we had. We had nothing. We were just working out of the corner of a board member’s office during this time,” Goldbloom recalls.

LeBlanc and Goldbloom promoted the idea to anyone who would listen, and they caught the ear of a very important supporter. On the last day of the G7 summit in Halifax in June 1995, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that the federal, provincial and municipal governments would provide $4.5 million for the Pier 21 project as a lasting memorial to the summit–as long as the Pier 21 Society raised matching funds.

Goldbloom started criss-crossing the country on a series of fund-raising trips. The experience strengthened her conviction that the project would mean something to millions of Canadians. “There was not one day that I did not meet somebody who had…an association with Pier 21,” she recalls. “If I went to corporate offices in Vancouver or Calgary or Toronto or I met with the man on the street, everyone had a story to tell about Pier 21.” Donations began trickling in and after three years the society met its $4.5-million goal.

When it was certain the pier would be restored, the society hired Erez Segal as its director of research and information services. He began collecting the information that would bring Pier 21’s history to life. Segal gathered anecdotes, records, photos and memorabilia that would provide the core of the Pier’s initial exhibits. He also helped supervise a team of 24 people who archived 800,000 immigration records provided by the National Archives of Canada.

He says Pier 21 isn’t a traditional museum with display cases full of artifacts. “Today, information can’t just be…passive,” he explains. “It has to be really interesting and it has to be really well-thought-out and it has to really look to entertain people and educate them at the same time.”

With a full-time staff of about 10, dozens of summer students and hundreds of volunteers, the pier is quickly becoming a major tourist attraction. And fittingly, many of its visitors arrive by water–in cruise ships, not immigration ships. This year, Halifax expects to play host to 150,000 passengers arriving on 110 liners, and the main cruise ship terminal is located next to Pier 21.

Goldbloom says the outpouring of emotion from visitors and supporters has been the most gratifying part of the project. “We had no idea we would strike a chord across the country. Letters have come in from every walk of life.” She remembers a telephone call from a man in Toronto who had passed through Pier 21 as an immigrant. Every November, he told her, he returned to Halifax to say, “Thank you God. Thank you Canada and thank you Pier 21.”

“It is the human element of Pier 21 that I think is the most important thing we’ve got,” adds Goldbloom.

Segal concurs. “I think Pier 21 is all about stories. And now we’re just trying to find new ways, exciting ways, to tell the stories to people.”

Discovering Family History At The Pier

When I learned that Pier 21 in Halifax houses thousands of immigration records from between 1925 and 1935, I could not resist asking for the record of my father’s arrival in Canada. For just $5, I received what to me is a priceless piece of family history: A photocopy of the actual passenger list for the voyage of the SS Montnairn which docked in Quebec on April 30, 1928. There were the names of my grandmother, my six aunts and uncles, and my father, the one-year-old baby of the family.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to make the long journey from Ireland with seven children under the age of 15 in tow. She was on her way to reunite with my grandfather who had come to Canada a year earlier to buy a farm. Once again, my imagination failed me, but this piece of paper made the voyage a bit more real.

To request a copy of an immigration record, as well as photos of ships and other memorabilia, please contact the Pier 21 library. The contact is research librarian Carrie-Ann Smith. You can reach her at: Pier 21, 1055 Marginal Road, Halifax NS, B3H 4P6. Telephone: 1-902-425-7770 Fax: 1-902-423-4045 E-mail: library@pier21.ns.ca The Web site is: http://pier21.ns.ca

Stories From Veterans Are Needed

Do you have a story to share about your trip through Pier 21? The people at the pier would love to hear from you. Anecdotes, photographs, tickets, menus and other memorabilia of ordinary journeys through Pier 21 are the cornerstone of the museum. In particular, Pier 21 is seeking information from veterans who have been slower than other groups to come forward with their memories. “We really urge any of these veterans to tell their story or share some of their artifacts with us,” says Erez Segal, the pier’s director of research and information services.

To contribute, contact the museum at the address above.

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