Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada

I bought Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc during a visit to Halifax many years ago after I had visited the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. This book was originally written in 1988, before the museum opened in 1999. At the end of the book the authors stated their case for the establishment of some kind of historical site or commemoration at the then unoccupied pier structure. I am sure this book played a role in bringing the museum into fruition.

After its opening in 1928 until it closed in 1971, almost one million immigrants arrived in Canada via Pier 21. Halifax was not the final destination for the vast majority of them; most of them boarded trains for destinations further west or even to the United States. What I didn’t know was that American immigration maintained a presence in Halifax from as far back as 1910. Since several liners had been banned from entering American ports, their immigrant passengers were processed in Halifax before they continued their journey to the States.

The authors took the reader on a journey from the immigrants’ arrival at Pier 21 through the screening process, medical tests and interview. We got to know the personnel who worked at the site, some of them for decades, and their role in making sure each new arrival was looked after. Almost one hundred years ago, colonialism and favoritism divided the immigrants into separate quarters immediately upon arrival:

“True to the tradition of the time, separate male and female quarters are maintained for British subjects and for all others, who are designated as Foreigners.”

Canada’s immigration policy evolved into a more humanitarian purpose, and while we once shipped sick new arrivals back to their home countries, we eventually allowed them to recuperate and then settle. We also opened our doors to people of colour and lifted bans on other areas of the world, like China.

Immigration slowed to a trickle during World War II and the pier was used at that time for the shipment of troops overseas. After the war the number of new arrivals surged, as refugees and displaced persons filled the ships.

When I toured Pier 21 I heard the story about Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, in that new immigrants were insulted to be given it as part of their food packages, since corn was used solely as an animal feed in their countries of origin. No wonder, then, that the floor of the pier became so littered:

“Another food item that proved to be a nuisance was one that was distributed to immigrants in the form of free samples. The Kelloggs company began the practise of handing out small boxes of corn flakes to all arrivals. Not recognizing this to be breakfast cereal, many of the recipients sought to dispose of the corn flakes after initial examination. More often than not, the floor of Pier 21 was thickly littered with corn flakes and empty boxes.”

The authors wrote a history that I raced through in three days. I often surprised myself after a day of reading to see how far I had progressed. If I didn’t have to work on each of those three days I am quite certain I would have read it all in a single sitting as it was that captivating.

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