Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada isn’t known as a winter tourist destination. That fact didn’t stop me from visiting. I walked down the snowy streets of Halifax. The sidewalks were mostly clear but had a few icy patches. I headed towards the Halifax piers. More specifically the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Pier 21 was used as an eastern seaboard immigration processing facility from 1928 to 1971. Today, it is a museum dedicated to the history of Immigration in Canada.
I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Pier 21 but an incoming snowstorm meant I had an entire day to explore Halifax. The storm was expected to drop 20 cm of snow on the city. Since I had more time than I planned in the city, I decided to head over to Canada’s version of Elis Island. I had never really thought about the fact that Canada was experiencing a period of mass immigration at the same time as the United States.
Due to its eastern location and access to mainland Canada, Halifax port was the first stop for many immigrants. The location provided the shortest ocean going crossing from European ports to Canada. On average it took between 7 to 15 days for the ocean voyage from Europe to Canada. Like immigration in the United States, most immigrates came from Ireland, United Kingdoms, and Netherlands. Pier 21 is the only remaining original seaport immigration facility. Over a million people passed through its doors and into Canada.
I started my tour of Pier 21 in one on of the temporary exhibit halls. The current exhibit was on the famed ship the Canadian Pacific Steamship the RMS Empress of Ireland. The Empress of Ireland was one of many ships that regularly brought immigrants from Europe to Canada. On May 29 1914, she collided with another ship and sank. Her sinking caused the deaths of 1,012 of her 1,477 passengers. After the sinking of the Titanic two years previously, the Empress of Ireland added enough lifeboats for all the passengers and held regular emergency drills. Unlike the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland sank about 15 mins after being struck and the crew did not have time to close the watertight doors and the severe damage to one side made launching half the lifeboats impossible. Most of the passengers were asleep in their cabins and were not awoken by the collision. Before coming to Pier 21, I had never heard of this ship or the disaster. The disaster was overshadowed in modern culture by Titanic and its movie.
After the Empress of Ireland exhibit, I headed up the escalator to second floor and the exhibit on immigration through Pier 21. Pier 21 was set on the waterfront allowing ships to dock and offload their passengers and cargo directly into the building. A newly arrived immigrant would be brought to a hall and made to wait with their hand luggage until interview by an immigration official. The interview took about 5 mins and then the immigrant went for a medical exam. Less than 1% of immigrants were turned away.
Once passing through the interviews and medical exams, the immigrants went through customs. They were not allowed to bring any food or seeds into the country. Some immigrants got created and turned meat into belts or babies or hid things in their clothing.
After customs, the immigrants were released to the train station where they could buy tickets further into Canada. The exhibit also includes several steamer trunks from immigrants showing what good they brought from home as well as artifacts from ships and what the conditions on the train and waiting areas were like.
Another exhibit showed what immigrants would pack in the larger shipping containers. Dutch citizens were unable to take cash with them when immigrating so they would ship everything they owned instead.
The other main exhibit on this floor is about the history of immigration in Canada. It examines the reason people immigrated as well as the different groups over different time periods. It chronicles some of the more recent immigrants and refugees thought on arriving in Canada as well as the cultural aspect they imparted on Canadian society.
Canada like the United States has become home to people from all over the world such as slaves from the Southern USA, to Jews escaping from the Nazi, or Rwandan escaping genocide. The last part of the exhibit is about becoming a Canadian Citizen. There is the opportunity to take the Canadian Citizen test. I failed, rather spectacularly. But I am not a Canadian Citizen so it’s acceptable that I didn’t pass.
I enjoyed learning about immigration in Canada and seeing how in compares the United States. The timing worked well given that early in the month I had been to Elis Island in the United States.
Have you explored your countries immigration history at a museum like the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21?