Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — I never knew how it was Nonno made his way to Canada. I know he left Italy after World War II and was looking for a fresh start for his young family. But how he decided upon Canada, where he landed and why he ended up residing in Lethbridge, Alberta is all a bit of a mystery to me.
All this whirls through my head as my daughter and I weave our way through the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. We’re here on a summer jaunt, keen to feel the sand between our toes and eat our weight in lobster, so I was somewhat surprised when my daughter, Eve, specifically requested we stop at Pier 21, the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971.
“Don’t you want to see the Titanic exhibit at the Maritime Museum?” I question.
“Well, we could go see that, but I really want to go to Pier 21,” she replies.
“But why?” I blurt out. “I mean, isn’t that a little heavy for kids?”
“I want to know how people got here. I want to know if Nonno was ever here, like right exactly where we are now,” Eve says.
Ah. Now I get it. Nonno, her paternal great-grandfather, was one of those larger-than-life figures, and though no blood relative of mine, a finer grandfather-in-law there never was. Undoubtedly, Canada is a country that’s been profoundly shaped by immigration, and it’s natural my daughter would want to learn more about her great-grandfather’s life and what role it played in shaping hers in the prairies 4,800 kilometres away.
Gateway to Canada in Halifax
Pier 21, a National Historic Site, is Atlantic Canada’s only national museum. It is where the majority of European immigrants first set foot on Canadian soil. While some immigrants arrived via Montreal or Saint John, Halifax’s naturally deep harbour, which is open year-round, and its railway lines linking the facility to the rest of Canada and the United States made this site a peer to Ellis Island. Today, thousands of visitors flock here just as we did, to understand the experiences of immigrants as they first arrived in our country and of the vital contributions they’ve made to our culture (and economy).
We begin in the new Canada Immigration Hall, where 400 years of immigration history have been documented. Fittingly, it begins with the aboriginal presence in Canada and moves on to explore themes such as the journey, arrival and the impact immigrants have made on Canadian society.
Eve practices packing her suitcase for a sea voyage, having to make tough choices between styrofoam blocks labelled shoes, dictionary, toys and clothes. She attempts to get it all into the standard size suitcase, but not without realizing how much she has to leave behind. This gets her thinking about how others would have prepared if they had to settle in a new country.
Most fun are the interactive displays where participants must guess what items might be withheld by customs officials upon arrival. Salami was hot ticket and we giggle imagining the likelihood of Nonno attempting to smuggle in a sausage or two.
Then we cram ourselves into a colonial train car, as an entire family would have once done to get themselves across Canada. The sparse wooden benches are hard and the views would have been daunting. While the process of immigration has changed over time, so much remains the same: the uncertainty, the fear and the hope for a better life. Despite being only 10 years old, Eve’s experience will resonate with her.
Tracing the Past at Pier 21
Before departing we swing by the Scotiabank Family History Centre. Here, staff help visitors retrace the steps of relatives who may have journeyed through Pier 21. We tell the researcher Nonno’s full name and a worker runs through the records on file. Sadly, we’re out of luck, as the records of those who immigrated to Canada after 1935 are still sealed by the Canadian government. But we spot a lucky few visitors receiving fact sheets on the ship their relatives travelled aboard. This information includes stories of the ship’s passengers.
Though we leave still uncertain about Nonno’s journey to Canada, we don’t feel empty-handed. While we may not know his exact ship or point of entry, we were able to get a sense of what his journey to Canada would have been like. More importantly, it reminded us how wonderful it is to reside in a multicultural country.
MORE ABOUT THE CANADIAN MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION AT PIER 21
Address: 1055 Marginal Road, Halifax, NS (see map below)
Tickets: Adult tickets cost $10 each
Hours: Daily, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm
More Tourism Info: Visit the Tourism Nova Scotia website