Skip to the Content

Customs and the Seizure of Goods at Pier 21

In May 2015, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened new exhibitions on the history of the Pier 21 National Historic Site of Canada and the history of immigration to Canada. This blog is based on research that informs these new exhibits.

Interwar immigrants coming to Canada often concealed their valuables for safekeeping and to avoid customs officials. While Canada welcomed immigrants to bring money with them, home governments outlawed their citizens from leaving with large sums of capital which could weaken their economy. In recalling her immigration to Canada from Poland in October 1938, Gerda Kiel noted that her father “bought a farm 2 ½ miles south of Falun, [Alberta] with money he brought from Europe (Poland). Dad hid money in the sewing machine. He drilled holes in the frame, rolled up large bills stuck them into the holes and covered the holes with wooden plugs. He also hid money in the large loose feather tick. This gave us a good start in Canada.”[1]

During the Second World War, Canadian seaports remained the largest source of work for customs officials. Their responsibilities included searching for illegal exports and Canadian currency that could be used to assist the Axis powers. Alongside the Royal Canadian Navy, Canada Customs controlled all port activity across the country. All neutral ships were searched. In the port of Vancouver, a Japanese vessel was inspected and a list of German agents in South America was discovered. Outside of seaports, customs officials in Windsor, Ontario captured an escaping prisoner of war on the engine of a passenger train.[2]

After the Second World War, customs officials continued to be solely responsible for enforcing the country’s customs regulations at border crossings, sea ports and airports across Canada. Due to heightened security, federal officers representing various departments were also present as these ports of entry, which led to long delays for travellers and often necessitated separate questioning and examinations. As a result, federal costs doubled at ports of entry across Canada.[3]

One of the prime responsibilities of Canadian Customs officials was to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease by examining immigrants’ baggage and personal items for smuggled food items. When it came to new arrivals from Europe, officials at Pier 21 did not shy away from seeking out hidden foods, which often included meat, flour, bread and beans. Arthur Vaughan, a Customs Officer at Pier 21, called this type of work “a most unglamourous occupation.”[4] When officers such as Vaughan located unpermitted foods, they were immediately turned over to the federal Department of Agriculture for incineration at their offices. Customs officials learned to ask whether newcomers arriving at Pier 21 brought with them foodstuffs from home—sausages, prosciutto, salami, bread, olive oil, nuts and beans to name a few. Many immigrants hoped that by answering ‘no’ to a customs official’s query they could treat their families and friends with a sample of the taste of home. Some were lucky, while others had their contraband foodstuffs seized.[5]

Canada Customs officers witnessed firsthand how immigrants brought a diverse variety of items to their new home. Arthur Vaughan, described his experiences with the following foods, beverages, and other controlled substances:[6]

Tobacco, alcohol, and olive oil:
“[…] there are limitations on the quantities of spirituous liquors and tobacco products that may be brought in free of duty and taxes. Tobacco was a luxury that few could afford but many immigrants had large quantities of alcoholic beverages.”

“In these instances the oil was discarded and the bottom half cut open to reveal a quantity of alcohol; this was also discarded. When the probes were used on trunks or other large baggage items, false bottoms were detected and found to contain liquor or meat, sometimes both. As may be expected, all these goods were taken from the offender and, unlike liquor displayed openly, the person was not permitted to retain any.”

“The liquor that was taken from the immigrants was held for thirty days and then, unless claimed, were destroyed under the direction of our Customs Inspectors […]. The passengers could obtain their property by applying to the liquor control authority in their new Province of residence. This was a costly procedure, as they were required to pay for packing, transportation, Customs duties and taxis as well as a fee to the provincial authorities. There were few requests for this privilege.”

Meat Products:
“When such material was located, it was confiscated and turned over to representatives of the Department of Agriculture for incineration on their premises.”

“One immigrant was wearing a heavy overcoat as he came through the examining area in spite of the comfortable weather. When Tom Leblanc asked him to unbutton we saw a walking delicatessen; there were about twelve lengths of salami sewn to the lining. The meat was seized and, in retrospect, perhaps the coat should have been taken also. If the salami had carried the foot-and-mouth virus it could have infected the garment.”

Currency:
Vaughan noted that $6,000 USD was found wrapped in a condom hidden in a 45-gallon tin drum of lard: “I passed the money to the owner who still seemed concerned. The interpreter asked what action we would take for this smuggling attempt but assured him that United States dollars were not in our list of prohibited goods. The taking of money out of his country was illegal under their laws but we had no intention of pursuing the matter.”

Jewelry:
“The Customs Tariff Item covering Settlers Effects required that any such goods must be in the possession of the importer for six months prior to arrival in Canada. However, as most nations restricted the amount of currency that could be taken out of their territory, the rules were eased to permit settlers to bring any non-prohibited goods they wished regardless of the dates of acquisition.”

Weapons:
Upon finding a .25 calibre handgun in a small can of ripe olives, it was handed to the RCMP: “We asked them if any action would be taken against this transporter of a prohibited weapon and were told that there would be none. No harm had been done and they wouldn’t want this hapless soul to lose his status as a landed immigrant.”

Farming Tools:
“The Holland-America steamships, Leerdam and Veendam were regular visitors to Halifax and, most frequently, baggage was examined in the Pier 21 cargo shed rather than the Baggage Annex. This was due to the number of large crates and boxes utilized by the immigrants to transport farm equipment and their household effects.”

Miscellaneous Items:
When it came to German steamship passengers: “their goods were classed as cargo rather than baggage and included an automobile, a truck, machinery for mixing paint, and a quantity of products to establish a painting manufactory. These items would be allowed free entry but formal Settlers Effects Entries would have to be processed through the Customs system at the main office before being released.”

During the 1960s, the concept of integrating inspections became more commonplace as customs, immigration, and medical officials shared tasks and information. By the end of the decade, Canadian customs increasingly oversaw every aspect of a traveller’s entry into Canada. On 1 October 1969, Canadian customs officials became responsible for representing all federal departments in their examination and questioning of travellers seeking to enter the country. At this time, approximately ten percent of travellers were subjected to baggage examinations.[7] Less than two years later, Pier 21 closed as port of entry to immigration.


  1. CMIP21, Story Collection, S2012.1906.1, “The Immigration Story of Gerda Kiel (née Zerbe) (Polish immigrant).”
  2. “History of Canada Customs,” accessed: 15 January 2014, http://members.shaw.ca/customs/History/.
  3. Dave McIntosh, The Collectors: A History of Canadian Customs and Excise (Ottawa: NC Press Limited, 1984), 139.
  4. CMIP21, Story Collection, Arthur J. Vaughan, “An Account of One Officer’s Experiences in Conducting Baggage Examinations of Immigrants to Canada during the Years 1945 to 1965, n.d;” Jan Raska, “Food Wars! Immigration and Food Confiscation at Pier 21,” Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Blog, 30 July 2013, /blog/jan-raska/food-wars-immigration-and-food-confiscation-at-pier-21.
  5. Vaughan, “An Account of One Officer’s Experiences,” n.d.
  6. Vaughan, “An Account of One Officer’s Experiences,” n.d.
  7. McIntosh, 344-345.