In search of Canada

Imagine yourself tossing at sea in the tight quarters of a replica ship’s cabin and dining room and settling Canada’s west aboard a colonist railcar. Photo: Pier 21

With the advent of good weather, I decided to explore some of the sights and sounds of my new hometown. The first name that came to my mind was the Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. As an immigrant myself, recently relocating to Halifax from India, this place holds a special significance for me.
I stood in front of the historic building for a few moments wondering what revelations awaited me. Then I took a deep breath and went in. I was impressed by the spacious, well organized halls with exhibits pertaining to the history of immigrants from different countries to Canada since 1865. It was both a pleasure and an eye-opener to walk through the museum.
About a million immigrants from Europe and Asia came to Halifax between 1928 and 1971. Russian immigrants were fleeing from the oppression of czars and the communists, British and Germans came to escape poverty and war, and French came to find jobs and economic stability. Japanese arrived in late 1800s and early 1900s to find land and ended up settling on the West Coast.
People came by immigrant ships to Halifax because the port was open year-round; Pier 21 was the portal through which they entered Canada. Some of them settled in Halifax, but most continued their journey by railroad to other provinces. The Sisters of Service, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army were at hand to assist the immigrants. It was fascinating to go into the replica of the train they travelled in.
As one of the tour guides led me and the other visitors through The Pier 21 Story exhibition, I was transported in time. In my mind’s eye, I could see the thousands of immigrants leaving their ships and walking in through Pier 21, tired and worn out by the long, harrowing journey. But they had hope. They were looking for a better place to live. They were looking for a country where they would be safe and find shelter and work.
I could see them coming through the entrance dragging their luggage. The picture of children carrying small suitcases containing their favourite toys and a few pieces of clothing stood out in my mind. Despite the fact that an immigrant could bring $100 into the country, a lot of them came without a cent. Often the immigration officers lent them money to buy train tickets.
I could also see the many immigrants who had no medical stamp on their documents and therefore had to wait in the detention centres. They were to undergo a medical examination because tuberculosis was a big problem at that time. Historians estimate that officials refused entry to about 10,000 immigrants because of health problems. I could imagine their sadness and frustration as they boarded the ship to be sent away from their dream land.
The Wheel of Conscience, an exhibit on the ground floor, depicted the unfortunate story of 937 Jewish immigrants from Germany who travelled by MS St. Louis. As the gears in the wheels turned, forming and breaking up the picture of the immigrant ship, the words hatred, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism caught my eye. Cuba, the U.S., and Canada refused to admit the Jewish passengers. They finally found refuge in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. During the Holocaust, the Nazis killed 254 St. Louis passengers. I stood there for a long time allowing their struggle and misery wash over me. There was anger in my heart, and disappointment.
The exhibition Family Bonds & Belonging at the Ralph & Rose Chiodo Gallery was fascinating. A special section in that gallery was thought provoking. It detailed the atrocities the Asian and African immigrants faced.
I enjoyed watching the 20-minute movie, In Canada, in which immigrants of different nationalities talked about their experiences. All of them said they were happy to be in Canada, although I thought they glossed over the difficulties of finding jobs and building lives here.
The Library and Archives Canada, and the Scotiabank Family History Centre are treasure houses of information. The Museum Gift Shop has wonderful mementos to suit everyone’s pocket and taste.
I realized I had spent more than half a day in the museum and it was time to leave. I hope to get back there again soon as there is a lot more to see, and a lot more to learn about the immigrants to Canada.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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