Pier 21: A Halifax Waterfront Gem
There’s no better introduction to the City of Halifax than the historic Halifax waterfront, with its stunning views, eclectic shops, and some of the best dining spots in the city. You can also get a fascinating dose of history here, especially if you start your exploration at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. I recently had the opportunity to tour this gem of a museum – and wish I had visited sooner!
Pier 21 – What Is It?
Every single Canadian is affected by immigration. After all, we each trace our ancestry back to immigrants, Indigenous peoples, or both. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is a national historic site, and it wears many hats. It’s a museum where people of all ages can discover Canada’s ongoing immigration story through hands-on exhibits. It’s also, in a sense, a time machine, where can you walk through the very same doors that welcomed more than a million immigrants to this country from 1928-1971.
What to See and Do
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 offers two permanent (but regularly updated) exhibits: The Canadian Immigration Story Exhibition, and The Pier 21 Story Exhibition. There’s also a temporary exhibition, Family Bonds & Belonging, on until November 2019.
You can spend some time in the Scotiabank Family History Centre to explore your own immigration history, and when you need a break, check out the Gateway Café and Museum Gift Shop, where I found lots of great local merchandise I’ve never come across at other tourist sites in Halifax.
Pier 21 is the perfect day-tripping destination for families, couples, and solo visitors, whether you’re visiting the area, or call Halifax home.
The Canadian Immigration Story Exhibition
400 Years of Immigration
Long before Pier 21 welcomed immigrants to Canada, this country had a complex history of immigration. The Canadian Immigration Story Exhibition explores 400 years of immigration history in Canada. From initial contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans to more recent immigration by refugees fleeing conflict.
Putting Yourself in Their Shoes
The Canadian Immigration Story Exhibition is designed to make you feel and think. Quotations from actual immigrants to this country, often fleeing war or poverty or searching for a better life for their children, bring home the intense emotions associated with such a journey. You’ll learn about the journeys of war brides, evacuees, British Home Children, displaced individuals, and more. All the while discovering how immigration has shaped your favourite foods, sports and hobbies.
A Checkered Past
One of my favourite things about this exhibit is the fact that it doesn’t try to gloss over the many less-than-proud moments in Canadian history. When the government used a variety of discriminatory schemes (head taxes, deportations, exclusion policies) to make it easier to admit more “desirable” immigrants, and harder to admit others. The struggles of Indigenous populations are also not being ignored. In fact, immigration had huge impacts on the First Nations people, that are still being felt today. The immigration process is always evolving.
There are plenty of interactive displays to keep every visitor occupied! You can take your photo and put yourself into the Canadian mosaic, or share your opinion on Canadian identity in the Belonging Quilt. Pack your own suitcase, making decisions about what you would bring to Canada as an immigrant, or watch the massive multi-media map to trace immigration trends at different points in Canadian history. Listen to oral histories of Canadian immigrants in their own words, and don’t forget to take the Citizenship Test yourself!
The Pier 21 Story Exhibition
Ever wondered if your ancestors got seasick while crossing the Atlantic by steamship? Or imagined what newcomers to Canada brought with them to Pier 21 from their homelands? Did you ever wonder what exactly happened to immigrants after 8-12 days at sea, when they finally reached the shores of their new home? How did they feel as they embarked on their new lives in a strange place?
Pier 21 is the last standing immigration terminal in Canada. This exhibit answers all of your questions (even ones you didn’t know you had!) about the process of arriving here as an immigrant to Canada. I took the 30-minute tour, available in several different languages – and I highly recommend you do the same! Your guide will bring to life the harrowing process of immigrating through Pier 21. You will be able to ask them any questions you might have and then explore the exhibit on your own.
You can see what a typical cabin on a steamship to Canada looked like, and learn about the conditions immigrants faced on board. Relax on a reconstruction of a train that would have transported immigrants to their final destinations, often in Ontario or out west. Kids can play with toys at the recreated nursery, and put on Red Cross and customs officer costumes.
See examples of items that would have been confiscated by customs officials, including homemade baked goods. These were sometimes the only tangible links immigrants had with home, and the only food that would sustain them on the journey ahead. There are books containing certain themes, such as different languages, religions, and customs.
You will learn about the many hurdles immigrants had to jump through even after arriving at Pier 21. From medical exams to interviews, and language barriers. This often resulted in changes in immigrants’ surnames without their consent. There’s an intricate model of the massive building (now mostly occupied by separate businesses) that used to comprise Pier 21. It included a detention area, nursery, hospital and accommodations area for those who failed their initial interviews.
Retracing the Steps of Millions
Immigration to Canada was a very difficult ordeal. In fact, 10% of immigrants returned to their homelands within a year of arriving in Canada. The Pier 21 Story Exhibition helps keep their memories and stories alive. It helps those of us who were lucky enough to be born in Canada to understand the hardships faced by immigrants to this country. The two original doors where millions of people took their first steps onto Canadian soil still exist. Here you can walk in the footsteps of these brave men, women and children.
Family Bonds & Belonging Exhibition
Viewing home movies, staging a puppet show, and playing in a giant blanket fort. Sounds like the perfect family night, right? In fact, these are all waiting to be discovered by kids (and kids at heart) as part of Pier 21’s temporary Family Bonds & Belonging Exhibition, originally produced by the Royal BC Museum.
Is it All Relative?
The exhibit explores ideas about the meaning of family. What does family mean to you? Is it simply about biology? Or can you choose your family? How have different generations and different cultures within Canada celebrated traditions with their families? And what makes your own family the amazing, complex, unique creation it is?
Check out the Portrait Wall, and add your own family shot (with the hashtag #FamPhoto21). Watch touching home movies from diverse cultures that show how important family is to all of us. Listen to oral histories to learn the stories of families who journeyed to Canada together. Explore the gallery of costumes and clothes from different cultures and time periods, and discover treasured family heirlooms.
If you’re anything like me, the Family Bonds & Belonging exhibit at Pier 21 will make you feel nostalgic about your own family and traditions, and maybe even encourage you to conduct a bit of genealogical detective work! It is also a great place for kids to learn about their important roles in their families. Plus, who doesn’t love a blanket fort?
Discover Canada’s Immigration Past, Present and Future
Our differences as Canadians are what give our nation its strength. This is a country with a complex immigration history that continues to be shaped today. No matter where we came from, or how long we’ve called Canada home, we’re all touched by immigration. There is nowhere better to discover Canada’s fascinating immigration past, present and future than at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Located right on Halifax, Nova Scotia’s historic waterfront.
The idea for this blog article was suggested to us by the museum’s communications manager.
They provided us with complimentary admission to the museum for research purposes.
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