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Re-Acting to My Family’s History

Doing an alternative practicum placement at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has been a bit of a surreal experience for me. As an education student currently enthralled with the world of museum education, doing an alternative placement at a national museum was an opportunity that I was happy to accept. I have really enjoyed working within different realms of education, being able to experience teaching within the classroom as well as outside of it.

When I refer to my experience at Pier 21 as surreal, it’s not because I visited the Museum as a child (even though I did, and enjoyed it very much). It’s because my grandparents, Rosario and Dorina De Palma, came to Canada from Italy through Pier 21. It’s because this museum, with its collection of stories, is an important fixture in my family’s history.

During one of our educational programs, we provide students with the experience of immigrating to Canada through role-playing. Titled the Landed Immigrant Program, students are given passports and told to fill them out, creating a persona of an immigrant looking to enter Canada. The Museum staff and interns act as immigration officers and question the students in order to see if they are suitable candidates to enter our beautiful nation.

Students are normally great actors, and fully embrace this role-playing activity. Sometimes the students “falsify their papers” and mistakenly write down that they are one year old, which leads to an interesting interview at the immigration desk. Once they are granted entrance (or deported, much to their chagrin), students are given an official stamp in their passport.

During my first week at the Museum, I helped present this program for a group of students ranging from primary to grade six. As I donned the immigration officer hat with my Pier 21 uniform, feeling immensely official, I helped to recreate the experience that many immigrants would have had during this period in time.

My role was translator: I spoke to the students in English, translating what the immigration officers said in French while the students stared back with a nervous and perplexed expression. Immigration officers would have spoken to immigrants in English or French, which caused for confusion and miscommunication for immigrants who spoke a different first language. Translators were essential facilitators of understanding for people who wanted to start a new life in Canada.

As I translated for these young students and helped them to gain entrance into Canada (i.e. collect more stamps in their passports), I had this weird moment of realization: I was recreating the experience that my grandparents would have gone through so many years before. They would have depended on a translator to help them to enter the country, start a new life together and begin our family history as Canadians. My family’s history and this museum have always been linked, but this moment of recreation allowed me to truly connect with my grandparents’ experience entering Canada through Pier 21.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is often described as the museum of stories. My alternative education internship has helped me to explore my family’s story. It has sparked my interest in finding out more about my Nonno and Nonna’s experience: I wanted to know what it was like when they travelled on their ships (the Saturnia and Vulcania). What type of food did they eat? What did they first think of Canada? Were they nervous or excited? Did they try to smuggle sausages in their suitcases?

This museum is an extensive collection of stories from immigrants travelling from all over the world to start a life in Canada. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn about these stories and to be able to explore my own family’s story. And to think, I was originally just excited to wear an official immigration officer hat.