The Pier 21 Visit Story of Mirja Bishop

Category: 
Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Date of Arrival: 
July 1 1999
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.274.1
Story Text: 

Pier 21: A Window into the Past

July 1, 1999, Canada Day. Here I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the grand opening of Pier 21, the immigration shed through which millions of immigrants, refugees, war brides, soldiers and others first set foot on Canadian soil. Here in the United States the restoration and opening of Ellis Island brought about much new coverage and general interest but few here in the United States including me had ever heard of Pier 21. It was through my early efforts at tracing my roots that I came across a wonderful web site for Canadian genealogy and from there I found Pier 21 and first learned that this historic site existed and that efforts were being made to restore it and turn it into a living monument for the millions that passed through its doors. I knew back in 1928 and 1929 when my grandmother and parents emigrated to Canada from Finland they arrived in Halifax. I even had landing cards for my mother and grandmother but I had no idea that the site where they went through the immigration inspection still existed. On a recent trip to Halifax I located the building which still stood in all its grandeur in the habour area of Halifax - a beautiful red brick building with Pier 21 clearly written on the front. There were a few government offices inside but for all intents and purposes it was just another building but soon all that would change. I followed the progress of the restoration effort intently on the internet until the spring of 1999 when it was announced that the grand opening would be on July 1, 1999. I had to be there to share in this momentous occasion and to hold hands with the spirits of my parents and grandmother who I knew would be with me.

In the months prior to the opening there were many opportunities for me to participate in the restoration project. Through the wonder of e-mail I began to communicate with a researcher at Pier 21. I submitted stories that I had written about my mother and father to him and, in fact, my mother's story is included among the stories of immigrants on the Pier 21 website. What a thrill that was for me! I had the opportunity to purchase memorial plaques to be placed on the Sobey Wall of Honour to immortalize my mother, father and grandmother and I also became a member of the Pier 21 Society. With every passing day my anticipation heightened until finally the big day arrived and I left Los Angeles for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Following are some memories of the sights and sounds that I experienced on the incredibly meaningful trip into the past:

November 24, 1928, September 15, 1929 Wilhelmina Laurila, Armas Laurila and Tyyne Saarinen first set foot on Canadian soil at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

July 1, 1999 Pier 21 reopens its doors to the world. It was closed in 1971 after serving as the immigration shed for 43 years.

Sharing in the opening day ceremonies - the Canadian flag unfurls gently in the breeze as speech after speech pay tribute to the many who came through these doors.

Listening to a song written in honour of Pier 21, tears come to the eyes of many.

Glancing around at the crowd and noticing that many are lost in memories of their past and of years gone by.

Closing my eyes and trying to share in the moment when my grandmother, father and mother first arrived in Canada. Their emotions must have ranged from fear to anticipation to joy to sadness to eagerness in this new land that would be their home.

Marveling at the pomp and circumstance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police representing the honour guard.

Proudly singing the Canadian National Anthem, O Canada, and being pleased that I could still remember most of the words.

Feeling the anticipation among the thousand present: soon the doors would open again!

Relishing the moment when I first stepped through the doors. I felt as if I was stepping back in time.

Seeing the Sobey Wall of Honour on my right as I entered the building. There the names of my parents were proudly displayed. I felt a lump in my throat as I brushed away the tears. I gave a gentle pat to both of their plaques.

Watching others quietly stand before the wall searching for the names of their loved ones.

Slowly walking through the spacious, high ceiling room which was, the main waiting area for the arriving immigrants and which is now the main display area with beautiful, artistic exhibits depicting the various stages of the immigration process. Here could be found displays with photographs, old suitcases, toys, clothing, all precious gifts donated to the museum.

Being asked, "Have you seen the display that has your name and part of your mom's story? " I hadn't, and the search began.

Finding a display near the front of the room entitled "Waiting " and written in quotes, "people were talking different languages, hands and arms gesturing wildly as they tried to make themselves understood ". This was a quote from the story that I wrote about my Mom. What a thrill to see my name under the quote and now part of Canadian history here at Pier 21.

Listening to the voices of people telling their story of arrival. The beautiful displays brought to life so vividly, the reality of these immigrants and their memories of arrival in Canada.

Sitting on a bench, closing my eyes and hearing sounds of the past - the laughter, the tears, the shouts, the whispers.

Sharing this time with my parents and grandmother. Imagining their thrill, trepidation, and anxiety as they heard their name called by an immigration officer. Their time had come!

Imagining their joy, exhilaration, and yet anxiety at what the future would hold for them. "Do you intend to make Canada your new home? " was one of the questions asked. They answered "yes ". They clutched their $25.00 tightly. This was their nest egg for the future.

Smiling as I watched an elderly man point to a display of ships and say proudly, "That's my ship! " He beamed as he stared at the photograph and remembered his trip across the ocean in 3rd class.

Sharing a conversation with a woman who came to Canada with her mother and four siblings. She described how her mere presence here at Pier 21 took her back in time to where she could smell wet wool. It had been a rainy day when they arrived.

For those people who had entered Canada through Pier 21 the memories that this day evoked must have been incredible. The war brides who came to join their Canadian husbands, the 494,000 soldiers leaving for war and the fortunate ones returning from war, the 3000 British evacuee children and of course the one million immigrants. I can only begin to imagine what a day this must have been for them.

This experience was for me truly remarkable. The sights and sounds of Pier 21 will remain with me forever. I felt closer to my parents and grandmother than ever before because I was able to share in this memorable experience. This was truly a great day for Canada and for me. Thanks Pier 21!