Pier 21 Museum











My dad insists he arrived to this country by cruise boat, my mother by cargo boat. This comment usually generates a bit of debate and argument in the house, though fun-natured. I doubt either is entirely correct though I would never doubt the struggles, feelings and fears they had about arriving to Canada from Italy which are still vivid for both of them. My mother particularly recalls, upon their May arrival, seeing snow and “houses on stilts” in the Halifax harbour prompting her to demand to her mother “we left Italy for this?” My dad remembers the nuns, processing his papers, changing his name from Luigi to Louis, something he still tries to correct today, some 50 years later.

I’ve long wanted to experience some of their history myself and when the opportunity came up this summer to visit Halifax, I immediately put the Pier 21 Museum on my touring list. I mapped it out, planned to give it half a day and started my trek down the harbour boardwalk. The Pier 21 Museum offers many exhibits on immigrant experience, a guided tour and a gift shop.

The Pier 21 Museum also houses the Scotiabank Family History Centre where you can look up family members that arrived at Pier 21, get information on when and how they arrived and details of the ship they travelled on. This is what I was really excited about. I was able to look up relatives that immigrated to New York (my great grandfather, for one) through the Ellis Island Passenger Search. That was easy and painless and I had been hoping to do the same for my parents and grandparents that arrived in Halifax. At Pier 21 though I ended up learning less about my family and more about the Canadian privacy legislation than I would have liked, but more about that later.

Finding your way to Pier 21

The Pier 21 Museum is located at the quiet end of the Halifax boardwalk, near the farmer’s market. The building itself is unremarkable, brick and steel and a lone train car as an example of how transportation continued on from there as Italian immigrants, and others, moved on to Montreal, Toronto and beyond. During the 75 years that Pier 21 functioned 471,940 individuals came to Canada from Italy making them the third largest ethnic group to immigrate between 1928 and 1971. You can learn the stories of the Italian immigrants in Pier 21 Museum

Learning about the Landing

The stories that the Pier 21 Museum presents are ones of struggle, hope and eventual success. The exhibits feature photos of immigrants arriving, waiting, being interviewing and in the health unit. There’s a small scale model of how the building used to be set up with living quarters for those who were quarantined and waiting areas for those who needed to be interviewed. There’s a faux Immigration Desk where you can get your papers stamped and a large display of the ships that arrived at Pier 21. Everywhere, there’s voices of the people who came telling the story of why they made the trip and how they settled here. There’s even a train car where each compartment features a screen playing the video interviews of immigrants who landed here. It’s great to hear the voices and stories.

Pier 21 Museum

One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was a suitcase filled with typical immigrant items (this included a soppresatta and a bottle of olive oil) and guests are encouraged to play “immigrant official” and guess which items were allowed to stay with their owners and which were confiscated. Let me guess…the meat goes? There’s even a little write up about the “sausage wars” as many immigrants, particularly Italians, were separated from the food they brought with them. The story on the write up goes on to say that one Immigration Officer, searching for hidden items, found a sausage in a bouquet of flowers. Just a question though – who had a fresh bouquet of flowers when they arrived from a cross-Atlantic trip?

Pier 21 Museum



There’s also a large display paying tribute to the nuns that helped immigrants in the Pier 21 facility and assisted their settlement into their new lives. I couldn’t help but think of my dad’s story of having his named changed and of my mom’s memories of nuns in her schools. They don’t sound as nice as the exhibit led them on to be. With this thought in mind, I started listening to the interviews with immigrants that play throughout the exhibit. They talk about the struggles of leaving the country you know, but are overwhelming positive about the experience of coming to Canada. One Dutch immigrant offers a story of a neighbour buying her items for her new baby, out of the blue. They are nice stories, and undoubtedly true, but I started to think of stories from my own family. Of being made fun of for being Italian, of being spit on on the TTC, or other Italians being interned during the war.

I’m not suggesting that coming to Canada wasn’t a positive thing for everyone arrived here. We are all better people, and proud people, for being part of this country. However, I think the struggles of settling into a new place, in a new community, in a new culture might have been a little overlooked by the Pier 21 exhibit. I appreciate knowing more about the Pier 21 experience, but decided that it’s my own family’s experience that is closest to my history.

Pier 21 MuseumDigging for Information

After a look at the exhibit, it was off to the The Scotiabank Family History Centre I headed. It is staffed with very friendly employees that do their best to help you with your information requests. If your family arrived in the 1950s, just what will you find out? Well their name, age, address they were headed to, if they can read, their language, how much money they came with, along with some other details, and if they were detained or processed as a landed immigrant. (Fun fact: one of the questions asked to immigrants was “have you or any of your family ever been mentally defective?”). Before the 50s, the information collected was minimal. If you know the name of the ship they arrived on, you can also get a ship fact sheet, photo and other info (for example prayer cards) that are associated with it.

So I asked to look up my grandparents and parents who are arrived in Halifax. I was ready to spend hours digging and discovering. Well guess what? Access is restricted under the Access to Information and Privacy Acts. Canada has one of the strictest privacy legislations in the world, which really we shouldn’t complain about, but in this moment I was a little miffed. After a bit of discussion with the kind folks there, the end result is this:

– if your relatives arrived after 1935, you need to fill out an Access to Information form (you can find it here) and submit it to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) office to get their landing card/landing record information including what boat they came in on. The document that CIC provides for a passenger is a print out of the line on which the passenger is indicated. Documents after the 1950’s will be a print out of ‘landing form’.

– if the person passed away within the last 20 years, the information will only be given out to the executor of their will or whoever held their power of attorney.

– if the person you are looking up is still alive, they need to fill out and submit their own type of form (you can find it here) .

And the final statement: “Citizenship and Immigration Canada will not disclose information to a member of the family for genealogical research or general interest.” The question remains then, just how does Ancestry.com give you access to all these types of documents when you can’t even get your own from the government?

The questions will remain, and if I get the energy up to start filling out government forms, I’ll let you know what the result is. For now, I’d say that Pier 21 is an interesting look at the immigrant experience and offers a lot to think about in terms of what our parents and grandparents went through to get to this country and actually settle here successfully. I don’t know if I would have the same strength they did do take on that adventure and risk.

Pier 21 Museum

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