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Pier 21: Canada's Best New Attraction

In the aftermath of September 11, we may think it’s difficult, if not unthinkable, to pick up our kids and jet off happily on family vacations. But families have traveled far and wide because of such tragic conditions.

The numbers of people passing through the reception hall at Halifax’s Pier 21 tell the story. Between 1928 and 1971, over one million immigrants fled from war, famine, pestilance, religious or political persecution—or just in search of better conditions for their kids. In addition, some 50,000 war brides (many of whom were carrying babies and children), almost half a million troops, some still teenagers going off to fight in World War 11, and thousands of home children escaping European bombing arrived via Pier 21, the country’s most important immigration shed.

My mum was one of them. She came to Canada in September, 1928, at the age of almost three with her older brother, sister and parents. She doesn’t remember much about the ocean voyage or a subsequent crossing three years later except that some nice young people “kidnapped” her so she could sit on a deck chair and sing for them. She still has the small velveteen dog they bought for her. But thanks to the Resource Centre/ Library at the Pier 21 National Historic Site, we now know that the family sailed from England on both the Alaunia and the Megantic, that none of them were either mentally or physically defective or carried tuberculosis when they came, and that by 1931, her dad born in Bangalore, India, carried the princely sum of $400 in his pocket.

Pier 21, considered to be Canada’s Ellis Island, is building a database of arrival stories. So it was really exciting for my daughter Natalie this summer to see the pictures of the ships carrying her grandmother and great-grandparents to Canada, to see the names of her great aunt and uncle on the records, and to hear the stories of the war brides and other immigrants in the interactive displays and exhibits. So far, only those families who immigrated through the Canadian ports of Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, or Saint John between 1925 and 1935 will have such records on microfilm as the answers to the 28 questions asked of each immigrant. But the Resource Centre also has photos of 90 percent of all incoming ships as well as photos of soldiers returning in 1945 and many immigrants. It is said that one in five Canadians have a connection to Pier 21.

But gathering this type of information is not the sole purpose of the facility. The attraction offers a slew of interactive exhibits and displays and last May, won this year’s Best New Attraction in Canada award from Attractions Canada. Even those kids whose ancestors drove across the U.S. border or flew to Canada will find the exhibits interesting. Try to pack all your worldly goods into one small suitcase—do you leave out your blue jeans or your beloved old doll? Imagine sitting in the reception hall with your family, waiting to be questioned by the official, then given clothes and cookies before boarding the train toward a cold Prairie winter. Examine the miniature model of the facility with its hospital for sick immigrants, kitchen and canteen, and even a jail.

Don’t miss the 24-minute virtual projection in the theatre, Oceans of Hope, which brings to life the experience of those who passed through Pier 21 including a young mother horrified with the official brochure on “how to deliver your own baby.” After watching the young soldier, the Italian family boarding a train toward their relatives, a young Jewish girl escaping the Holocaust, many of the audience were fighting back tears. “We see a lot of that here,” nods Carrie-Ann Smith, director of research and information services. To illustrate the point, we listened as a Yugoslavian woman told us her story and wiped away tears. But there are also celebrations. We also witnessed a joyful party with costumes, music, and food thrown by a Hungarian family celebrating their 50th Anniversary of entering the country. As we launch today into Citizenship Week, it’s perhaps reassuring for kids these days to know that Canada has always been considered a safe country, a haven from the kinds of world troubles perplexing us all.

A visit to Pier 21, open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., costs $15.50 for a family of two parents and children under 16. Older full-time students are $4.50. Call 902-425-7770 or visit www.pier21.ns.ca for most frequently asked questions as well as information on passenger lists and records. If you would like to visit the Resource Centre/ Library, it’s best to call ahead so that staff can assist. Immigration records from 1865-1935 held by National Archives in Ottawa. Call 1-866-578-7777 or visit www.archives.ca. Post 1935 records are held by Citizenship & Immigration Canada. Call 1-888-242-2100 for the nearest call centre.





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