The manual used by immigration staff in the 1950s stated that medical and physical requirements of the Immigration Act were “[f]or the protection of residents of Canada, and to ensure that persons seeking admission do not become public charges…” This connection between public health and medical controls on immigrants in Canada has deep historical roots in Canada, notably in Halifax, which suffered several cholera outbreaks and scares connected with migration during the nineteenth century. In response to the perceived public health risks, the immigration branch required prospective immigrants to clear medical examinations overseas and at their port of entry. These policies were updated regularly, which led to the medical facilities being the most dynamic structures in historic Pier 21. This also influenced personal experience and practices at Pier 21, for immigrants and staff alike.

“The doors which once were opened wide are now but slightly ajar. The countries that boasted of their liberal attitudes toward new settlers – particularly the countries of the Western Hemisphere – are much more strict in their requirements today in permitting a foreigner to enter their boundaries for permanent settlement.”
– Harold Fields, The American Journal of International Law, 1932.

Pier 21 is best known as Halifax’s receiving station for almost one million immigrants to Canada, and as a key embarkation facility during the Second World War. However, most of the people who passed through the waterfront facility only saw one of the most important areas of the site if something went wrong during their examinations. If there was a problem with their admissibility—perhaps a job arrangement that fell through, or a discrepancy in papers that required a check—applicants for entry could be delayed and detained. They would then be placed in Pier 21’s immigration quarters.

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