Pier 21 has a storied history, beginning with its time as the point where some 1.5 million immigrants took their first steps on Canadian soil. It was the country’s primary entry point for decades until air travel superseded immigration by sea. The building was closed in 1971. Used for various purposes in the intervening decades, Pier 21 was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1997, and began operating as an interpretive centre in 1999. It became a national museum--Canada’s sixth--in 2011, and is known today as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Many Canadians today can trace their roots in this country to a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent who entered through Pier 21. The building bore witness to several significant waves of Canadian immigration including British Home Children, war brides, and post-World War II displaced persons. It was also the place where many returning soldiers arrived home in 1945. For many people, visiting the museum is often a pilgrimage of sorts, an emotional trip as much as an educational one. To this end, the building also houses the Scotiabank Family History Centre, where researchers can help visitors trace their own immigration stories. This service is offered online as well (https://pier21.ca/family-history) for people who cannot visit the museum. The centre offers these tips (https://pier21.ca/blog/caroline-michaud/trace-your-roots-at-the-scotiabank-family-history-centre) to prepare in advance of an in-person research request. Subject to privacy restrictions, this can be a fascinating way to find out more about your family history.
The museum’s permanent exhibit is divided into two parts on the second floor, with a third space on the ground floor used for rotating temporary exhibitions. The half of the permanent exhibit known as “The Pier 21 Story” is dedicated to telling the story of immigration to Canada during the time when Pier 21 was active. It talks about the voyages people took to get here, who they were, what they packed, and why they left their homelands. Some of the major features include a train car similar to the ones many newly landed immigrants would board to continue their journey west, a recreation of the assembly hall where people would wait for immigration officials to clear them for entry, and an observation gallery, where visitors can look out onto the harbour and see where the ocean liners bringing would-be immigrants would have docked. Visitors are encouraged to leave stories of their families’ immigration experiences to be displayed on replica luggage tags. In addition to artifacts, this section includes selections from numerous oral histories and a 20-minute film (shown alternately in English and French) featuring first person immigration stories.
The second half of the permanent exhibit is called Canadian Immigration Hall, and it tells the story of 400 years of immigration to what would eventually be called Canada. It takes a much broader approach, talking about early immigration not just through Halifax but through points further west as well. It tells the story of immigration to Canada as an ongoing one, including objects and stories collected from very recent immigrants as well as historical ones. This part of the exhibit is quite interactive, and invites visitors to do things like record their families’ cultural traditions and try their hand at the Canadian citizenship test.
The museum is careful not to present a Pollyanna view of the history of Canadian immigration. It does acknowledge that immigration by Europeans came at the expense of the Indigenous populations who were displaced and killed for their land. It is also very matter-of-fact about some of the uglier chapters in Canadian immigration history, including the Chinese head tax and the turning away of ships like the M.S. St. Louis and the Komagata Maru. Oral histories are a large part of the museum’s collection, and they feature prominently in the permanent exhibits. These histories allow people to tell their own immigration stories, and they are not cherry picked for happy or funny anecdotes; while those kinds of stories are included in the exhibits, the museum also gives significant space to the discussion of themes such as discrimination, xenophobia, and loneliness.
I am certain that readers of this blog do not need to be reminded that immigration is a contentious political issue, as much now as it ever has been. Immigration museums are uniquely positioned to address the prejudices and concerns that people may have about immigration, and have the opportunity to counteract some of the uglier things being said about immigrants and immigration in the current sociopolitical moment. The Canadian Museum of Immigration is a place that is important not just for how it dissects and presents history, but for how it talks about current events and relates them to the past. For better or worse, this is not an institution that is likely to ever have to fight for relevance.
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is located on the Halifax waterfront (1055 Marginal Rd.). It is walkable from downtown Halifax or the ferry terminal. There is on-site parking. The museum is fully wheelchair accessible, and service animals are permitted. All written, video and auditory content is fully bilingual. There is a gift shop and a cafe with a wide-ranging menu (lots of meal and snack options).
Opening hours are seasonal:
Cost of Admission:
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