Back in Time at Halifax’s Pier 21

by Aisha Gautreau-Koncius

Pier 21 - Halifax, Nova ScotiaSome people take vacations to lay on a beach, some to go to see family, and some go to see history.

In the past year I have been coast-to-coast seeing this beautiful country of Canada, where my family proudly now calls home, so an important stop for while in Halifax was to visit the past.

Being born here I have always seen the beauty of my home and native land. But my interest in Pier 21 lay within knowing that my mother and my grandparents made the choice to start a new life here. In the late 1950’s from the shores of Liverpool, aboard the Empress of Britain is where my families journey began, and until now I haven’t truly appreciated the depth and full meaning of it all until I walked in the Pier 21 National Historic Site in Halifax.

Located just a 10 minute walk along the waterfront from the main core of downtown Halifax, a large building stands holding within it the memories left by 1.5 million immigrants to Canada.

From 1928 to 1971 Pier 21 was one of Canada’s gateways for people looking to begin a new life, and on Canada’s Birthday (July 1) in 1999, the site was refurbished and reopened to the public as a historical journey. It is not only a tribute to those who have helped shape our country by starting a new life here, but as a place that all Canadians can and should visit (for a minimal $8 admission fee) to learn, appreciate and discover the path of immigration – and maybe along that way gain a little more knowledge about our own families.

Pier 21 - Halifax, Nova ScotiaWith the purchase of a “passport” for $0.50 visitors can gather stamps as they travel through the emotions of the displays, photos and artifacts giving you a taste of interactive fun.

The Exhibition Hall, which is laid out in a 4-stage, self-guided tour, begins with the decision to leave one’s home country and boarding one of the ships for the journey across the Atlantic.

An inspiring site not to miss is the windowed wall with a view of the Halifax Harbour, which is the exact spot where new Canadians would take their first steps into Canada, and kiss the ground.

The “In-Transit Theatre”, which resembles a ship, houses a well-worth seeing 24 minute multi-dimensional digital presentation called “Oceans of Hope”, portraying emotional stories from wartime evacuees, refugees, troops, war brides and their children.

As you progress through stage 3, the arrival, one of the most thought-provoking recreation displays of the waiting room with a customs desk at the front is hard to miss. Take a moment to experience sitting on one of the benches and ponder what it must have been like to wait with the family in tow, only enough luggage of what could be carried, and wait for the turn to be called to the front of the line.

At the end of the visitor emigration journey is a train with each “room” on board showcasing a series of videos and stories of those who made a journey, just as my family did, and describing their experiences on board and thoughts on arriving to Canada.

And if the displays have inspired you (one in five Canadians today can trace a link back to Pier 21), as they did me, a resource centre library, located above the Exhibit Hall, houses a wealth of valuable information and is available for quick look up of details of 90% of the ships called to Canadian ports and information on immigration records. If you are unable to locate any information within the books found in the library, any of the helpful staff will be able to assist you by tapping into one of their vast and highly informative databases.

Canada is host to one of the most multi-cultural populations in the world and Pier 21 gives breath to the memories and history to many individuals of this great nation. A trip to Halifax to see this overwhelming and inspiring part of history is a must for any visitor – no matter where they come from.

Images copyright W. Andrew Powell, April 2006.

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