Canada has a long and proud history of opening its doors to people in need. It’s a tradition that continues today and one we, as a nation, are proud of. It is in fact, what makes us Canadian. Today, most newcomers arrive by aircraft, landing directly in a major city, as we did. But that was not always the case.
Between 1928 and 1971, over one million immigrants entered the country through what became known as Canada’s “front door”, Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Passing through its doors were refugees, troops, wartime evacuees, war brides and their children — people who, for whatever reasons, were seeking a better life. It was also from Pier 21 that almost 500,000 Canadian troops left for Europe during World War 2 — 50,000 would not return home.
The facility opened on March 28, 1928. Holland America’s, SS Nieuw Amsterdam became the first ship to bring immigrants through Pier 21. The ocean terminals in Halifax harbour had freight piers, grain elevators, a train station, and over 220,000 square feet of space allotted for immigration.
The immigration complex had medical and detention quarters, an assembly hall, customs, a railway booking office and a telegraph office. The Red Cross was onsite.
There was a restaurant where meals could be purchased before boarding special passenger trains made up of dozens of colonist cars – coaches designed specifically for moving immigrants inexpensively across the country.
For the more affluent passengers, a direct connection between Pier 21 terminal and Halifax’s railway station was available. From there, passengers could board regularly scheduled trains to their final destinations.
The 1950s saw a peak in immigration as thousands of postwar Europeans left their homelands behind. An addition to the facility was added to handle the extra traffic. But just as quickly, a decline happened as more and more people began arriving by plane.
The last group of immigrants who made their way through Pier 21 were 100 Cubans who, in 1970, defected in Gander International Airport (Newfoundland). They were given accommodations at Pier 21 while their refugee claims were processed.
In 1971, the SS Nieuw Amsterdam (II), which bore the same name as the first ship to bring immigrants to the pier 21 in 1928, was the last ship to bring immigrants to Halifax harbour. Pier 21 closed shortly thereafter.
Today, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site and home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration. Tours are available at various times throughout the day led by knowledgeable guides.
If you’re into genealogy, the Scotiabank Family History Center (SFHC), located on the main floor, is a great place to conduct research. Basic information for anyone arriving through a Canadian port between 1865 and 1935 can be accessed. Staff members are available to help locate historical documents.
Pier 21 is another historical Canadian 'gem' I can finally cross off my list.