Portal To The Past At Pier 21

As I perused the wall of relics at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, I was reminded of the importance of preserving family stories. Individually, these images may seem ordinary, but collectively they form a narrative that shapes history.

My own family story was shaped by this place in 1960 when my grandmother, Carmina, stepped off the gangway of the Saturnia into Pier 21 with four young boys in tow. My father, age four at the time, remembers little from the journey across the Atlantic. My grandmother seldom mentioned it. But now, a generation removed, a kindling to know more burns within me.

It’s why my visit to Halifax with Porter Airlines began with a trip to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The historic Pier 21, preserved in its simplistic glory, now serves as one of two national museums located outside our nation’s capital. Along with exhibits that explore modern-day immigration in Canada, the museum houses a research library where visitors can explore their family heritage and a special exhibit for the history of immigration at Pier 21 itself.

The exhibit entrance is lined with vintage trunks, varying in size and style, symbolic of the diversity and multitude of immigrants who arrived here. The trunks look much like the 5-foot by 3-foot chest my family arrived with, our surname and the ‘Pier 21’ marking still etched in white paint on the lid to this day. For many, these small trunks were all they could bring with them as cruise liners limited them to one trunk per traveller.

A guided tour of the main exhibit offers a plethora of vivid, moving stories, depicting the struggles many faced at the time. Our guide shares a story of two young boys, emerging from post-war Britain, where staples like eggs were rationed to one a week. The boys were so enamoured by their breakfast options in the ship’s dining room that they ordered a dozen hardboiled eggs in one sitting. Many of these stories contrast the dire conditions of post-war life, which were for so long affected by the limitations of food rations, with the spoils that Canada seemed to offer. I thought of my own grandmother at a table with all her boys, hearty bowls of soup in front of them, wine and rolls to spare, and I imagined what she must have thought.  

table setting at Pier 21

My family’s story is not uncommon. Over a million immigrants passed through Pier 21 from 1928-1971. Now, retracing their steps from the gangway, through the customs hall, and down to the train station, I gained a much better appreciation of their journey. I felt connected to this place in a new way and began to understand the importance of its preservation. It will continually serve as a testament to the commitment and determination of past and present immigrants seeking out a better life.