Pier 21: The First 75 years
- The Beginning
- The Second World War
- Following the Second World War
- Late 1940s and Early 1950s
- A New Beginning
- Canada's Immigration Museum
Can the suffering and joy of a million people be absorbed into walls? If you walk the floors of a seventy-five year old building can you sense the presence of those who came before you? The Pier 21 Society thinks you can, and has invested ten years of volunteer work and fundraising into saving the last standing immigration shed in the country so that all Canadians would have an opportunity to find out. On March 28, 2003 we celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of Pier 21’s official opening. Sadly, the founder and first president of the Pier 21 Society passed away in the spring of 2002 but the dream of J.P.LeBlanc (PDF 65KB) has been realized. His dream had been for the creation of a museum that would honour both the place and the people that stopped there, some for just a few hours before boarding trains for destinations across the country, some on their way to or home from war and some, like J.P. LeBlanc, for their careers. That dream came true on July 1, 1999 (PDF 65KB) and it is kept alive everyday by the Society, staff, volunteers, donors and visitors.
Halifax was founded in 1749 and has welcomed newcomers ever since. Early colonists docked at the finger piers that lined the harbour. Pier 2 (PDF 720KB), also called the deep-water terminal, was the spot that welcomed post-Confederation immigrants. The old terminal was seriously damaged by the Halifax Explosion in 1917 but was restored and active until the 1920s, when heavy traffic and other practical concerns necessitated a new facility. In The Pier 21 Story (PDF 70KB), J.P. LeBlanc wrote, “In 1924 the situation was finally rectified. Facilities were opened adjoining the temporary south end railway station in a large airy building that for more than forty years would bear the name, familiar to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, Pier 21.” Mr. LeBlanc explains that Pier 21 was really a complex of buildings, connected by ramps the railway (PDF 280KB) station, and containing such facilities as Immigration Services, Customs, Health and Welfare, Agriculture, the Red Cross (PDF 65KB), a kitchen, a dining room, a canteen where supplies could be purchased, a nursery, a hospital, a detention centre, a volunteer room (PDF 1.1MB), dormitories and an airing gallery or promenade overlooking Halifax Harbour. Although immigrants began trickling into the Pier in 1924, it did not officially open until March 8, 1928 when the Nieuw Amsterdam docked, guaranteeing its place in history as the first immigrant ship to arrive at the newly opened facility. During this era assisted passages schemes (PDF 25KB) were popular and it was very common for men to arrive alone, find employment, save their earnings and then bring their families over. Because many women and children crossed the Atlantic under these circumstances, the Immigration Service had special facilities for assisting them. Miss A.S.M. Bullock was principal officer of the Women’s Division of the Halifax branch of the Department of Immigration. She would escort these women and children to the train and hand them over to a conductress who would see to their needs. These conductresses were present on every immigrant train that left Halifax in the 1920’s (PDF 30KB) and 1930’s (PDF 20KB). In addition to the immigrants who arrived seeking greater opportunities in Canada there were the British Home Children (PDF 115KB). The Home Children movement was a well-intentioned but poorly executed humanitarian plan to relocate poor British children to Canadian farms to work as child labour. Although the movement began in the mid-1860s it did not end until the Second World War; thus many of the final 100,000 children passed through Pier 21. In the late1920’s (PDF 30KB) immigration was brisk but the depression of the 1930’s would slow it considerably. Between 1930 and 1939 (PDF 20KB) immigration to Canada never exceeded 15,000 a year. Only one third of European applicants would be granted permission to sail to Canada and many of those who obtained admission during these lean years became disillusioned and returned to Europe.
The Second World War
When Canada entered the Second World War (PDF 120KB) on September 10, 1939 Pier 21 was immediately taken over by the Department of National Defense. Graham Metson’s An East Coast Port: Halifax at War 1939-1945, and the recent publication Sailors, Slackers and Blind Pigs: Halifax At War by Stephen Kimber offer interested readers a fascinating picture of wartime Halifax. We must rely on first hand accounts for information about Pier 21 during this era since security concerns have left us with few images and little text. The diary of Halifax’s wartime censor, H. Bruce Jefferson, is an incomparable source of detailed information on the important role Halifax played in maintaining the lifeline of supplies and personnel to Britain (PDF 1.3MB). Canada’s official war historian, C.P. Stacey, wrote that with the exception of two small groups all 494,874 Europe-bound service personnel embarked from Pier 21 during the Second World War. Of these, 50,000 would not live to return. Throughout the war years thousands would arrive back on hospital ships like the Letitia, Lady Nelson and El Nil. During the war Pier 21 also saw the arrival of 3,000 British evacuee children (PDF 85KB). While Canadian officials refused to aid refugee children during this period they did agree to let British children come from heavily-bombed areas of Britain as part of the CORB scheme (Children’s Overseas Reception Board). Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States also accepted children. The evacuation scheme was initially a great success, but the tragic sinking of the City of Benares by a German U-boat in September 1940 and the resulting loss of seventy-seven children brought it to a halt. With hundreds of thousands of Canadian servicemen and women in Britain (and eventually continental Europe) wartime romances and marriages were inevitable. 48,000 war brides (PDF 512KB) and their 22,000 children began arriving during the war years, with the largest influx disembarking at Pier 21 in 1946. Some brides came on small banana boats and others on luxury liners, but, however they arrived, each faced a moment of truth as she disembarked and caught her first glimpse of Canada.
Following the Second World War
The brides had bravely left their homes to follow their hearts to Canada but for millions of refugees (PDF 52KB) there were no homes, indeed for some no countries, to return to. Large numbers of displaced people did not begin arriving in Canada until 1947, two years after the war had ended. Upon the conclusion of the Second World War the Canadian people and their government showed no immediate desire to open the doors to large numbers of immigrants. There are several reasons why this was the case. In “After the War” Jean Bruce explains that, “The government’s first priority was the adjustment from wartime to a peacetime economy. One million Canadian men and women who had been employed in war industries had to find other work, and 975,000 members of the Canadian armed forces had to be absorbed into the postwar labour force.” Another reason for the mixed feelings was a strong anti-foreign sentiment. Canada had always had “preferred” and “non-preferred” ethnic groups when it came to immigration. British and American individuals were most favoured with central, eastern and southern Europeans falling into the “non-preferred” category. Since the majority of those that would be seeking refugee status were from the “non-preferred” category the policy makers had to re-evaluate their harsh standards. By 1946 Canadians were starting to relax a little about their economic security and it was becoming apparent that there was an acute labour shortage in the country’s primary industries of farming, forestry and mining. Bruce explains that many of these jobs had been filled during the war years by the government-directed labour of 11,000 Canadian conscientious objectors and 15,500 prisoners of war. The departure of these groups posed a serious problem, since a Department of Labour survey of the work force showed that few Canadians were willing to work at tough physical jobs in isolated areas. Pro-immigration pressure began to grow from industrialists and manufacturers. The Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways were also desperate for labour to repair and maintain the railway tracks across Canada. When no official Canadian promise of help for refugees had come by the fall of 1946 ethnic organizations and humanitarian groups began to add their voices to those of the industrial lobby. These efforts were rewarded in May of 1947 when Prime Minister Mackenzie King delivered his immigration policy statement in the House of Commons. King acknowledged Canada’s need for a larger population. He explained that Canada needed manpower for her primary industries and an increased population to defend its huge territory in a time of international insecurity. King said that, “Those immigrants who were admitted would be selected with care and only according to Canada’s absorptive capacity.”
Late 1940s and Early 1950s
The late 1940’s and early 1950’s (PDF 45KB) would be the busiest years in the history of Pier 21. In addition to the 100,000 refugees who arrived with the aid of the International Refugee Organization were hundreds of individuals from the Baltic States who arrived illegally. Fleeing Soviet oppression many Baltic refugees had fled their homes into Western Europe. Scandinavian countries, the easiest destinations, were not safe for long as Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were considered citizens of the Soviet Union and liable for deportation. Sweden, for example, accepted 22,000 Estonians between 1944 and the end of the war, and integrated almost three-quarters into universities or skilled work. However, by the late 1940s the Soviets pressured Sweden to turn the Baltic peoples over. Many chose to flee Europe in “little boats” like the Walnut, Sarabande and Parnu. Of the nine such crossings seven were to Pier 21, where the refugees were held in the detention quarters or at Halifax’s Rockhead Hospital; most were eventually given landed immigrant status. In the early 1950’s large numbers of Dutch immigrants (PDF 670KB) began to arrive seeking land that they could farm. The number of emigrants was so high that the government of the Netherlands restricted how much money families were allowed to take out of the country in order to preserve the Dutch economy from additional damage. Many of the most amusing Pier 21 stories stem from the Dutch practice of converting money into household goods and bringing as much as possible to Canada. A large wooden trunk called a “kist” was the most popular way of transporting goods, ranging from beds and mattresses to dry goods and coffee. It was a memorable day in the Customs department when a prefabricated home was unloaded by a Holland America Liner. The Dutch would be the fifth largest ethnic group to enter Canada between 1928 and 1971, following the British (PDF 62KB), Americans, Italians (PDF 430KB) and Germans (PDF 68KB). While the Dutch seemed intent on bringing as many household items as possible, the southern Europeans were equally enthusiastic about bringing homemade food to Canada. Pepperoni, salami and cheeses of all kinds were favourites. Many hearts were broken as meats, cheeses and bread were confiscated by Customs (PDF 650KB) officers. Here Ilse Koemer describes the scene at Pier 21 after the passengers of the Conte Biancamano disembarked, "Behind long tables immigration personnel directed the newcomers luggage to be put along one wall. Food belonging to the immigrants was confiscated and piled up in a heap in the middle of the hall. Rays of sunshine painted a colourful still life of that mountain of sausages, loaves of bread, wheels of cheeses, fruits and other perishable items." The next large wave of immigrants was a result of the Hungarian revolution (PDF 18KB). In December of 1956 alone 35,000 Hungarians were admitted to Canada; half passed through Pier 21. Approximately 5,000 more would follow. Rockhead Hospital was once again temporarily transformed into an accommodation centre where refugees awaited word on their admittance to Canada. By the late 1950’s and 1960’s (PDF 42KB) more and more immigrants were choosing to fly to Canada rather than make the North Atlantic crossing by ship. Canadian immigration officers were splitting their time between meeting ships at Pier 21 and meeting planes at the airport. It was decided that the number of immigrants arriving by sea was not large enough to justify the facility and, on March 8, 1971, almost exactly forty-three years from its official opening, Pier 21 closed. The Pier 21 story could have very easily ended there, but thanks to J.P. LeBlanc, Ruth Goldbloom and many other interested parties it did not.
A New Beginning
With Mr. LeBlanc at the helm the Pier 21 Society (PDF 25KB) was formed in the 1980s. A veteran of the Second World War who had passed through the shed himself and a career public servant within the Department of Employment and Immigration, he helped renew interest in Pier 21 and created the first Board of Directors in 1988. The mandate of the Pier 21 Society was to transform the shed into a facility of international importance, acknowledging the significance of immigration to the building of Canada and our country’s role in the Second World War. During these early stages one thing became clear; no matter what the future held for Pier 21, it would always remain in the hearts and memories of the people who had passed through. As Board members shared their ideas of what Pier 21 could become, they heard from people who had made pilgrimages back to Halifax to stand on the Pier and reflect on their lives in Canada. Ruth M. Goldbloom O.C. (PDF 36KB) became the second president of the Pier 21 Society in 1993 when J.P. LeBlanc took ill. In 1995 the Society received news that would transform the idea of a re-opened Pier 21 into a reality. On the last day of the Halifax G-7 Summit, Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that the legacy of the host city would be a 4.5 million dollar pledge towards the museum project. This gift also came with a challenge that the Society raise an additional 4.5 million dollars in matching funds. A National Advisory Committee and Atlantic Committee were struck. These teams, led by Ruth Goldbloom, began telling the story of Pier 21 and its significance to Canada in boardrooms and homes across the country. In May 1997, a national fundraising campaign was launched when over one million dollars worth of commitments were announced. The private sector continued to respond and thanks to gifts of all sizes, from every corner of the country, the Pier 21 Society successfully raised the necessary nine million dollars to complete the renovations. In November 1998 work on the site began; the site re-opened eight months later on Canada Day, 1999 (PDF 62KB).
Canada’s Immigration Museum
For many Canadians, Pier 21 was their introduction to a new country. They came seeking adventure, employment, and greater opportunities for their children. Many newcomers were happy just to be off the ship after a long and harrowing crossing; others were heartbroken as precious homemade food was confiscated by Customs Officers. Nervous and excited at the same time, no matter how much they had heard about Canada no one knew exactly what awaited them. Only that it was a second chance, an opportunity, and, for better or for worse, everyone remembers the moment that they stepped into the shed and knew for certain that they were not in Europe anymore. Something similar can be said for the half a million service personnel who left from Pier 21 and for the lucky ones who returned. When they walked through the shed initially none knew if those would be their last steps on Canadian soil. Fortunately, most returned to bands and cheering crowds, having lost only their youth. They were no longer the nervous and excited youngsters who had stepped off Pier 21 those few years before. The world is a very different place for the children and grandchildren of the Pier 21 alumni. Today the original building with its cement floors and towering ceilings is juxtaposed with the state of the art multimedia exhibits, reinforcing the dichotomy of past and present. Like all good stories it is complicated and full of contradictions. A million souls passed through Pier 21, and even though we don’t know all of their names or stories, they all left an impression. They were absorbed into the walls and floors that echo today with the footfalls of their descendants.