On Canada Day in 1999, a National Immigration Museum was opened at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Pier 21 was Canada’s official primary port of entry for forty-three years, finally accepting the last passengers through its gates in 1971. One million people passed through its doors on their way to becoming Canadians.
Although not officially opened until 1928, Pier 21 began accepting immigrants as early as 1924. The prior immigration shed – Pier 2 – had been badly damaged during the Halifax explosion of 1917. It was restored, but increasing waves of immigrants necessitated the use of the new building.
Assisted passenger schemes delivered many men to the shores of Halifax in the 1920s and women and children followed when the men had earned enough for their families to join them. Many families crossed in this way and so, Pier 21 had special facilities to assist them.
Another immigration program and perhaps the largest, was that of the more than 100,000 British Home Children who were to Canada. Although this scheme started in the mid-1860s, most of the final immigrants passed though Pier 21’s shed.
In the 1930s, immigration slowed almost to a halt as the Great Depression reared its ugly head and only one third of European applicants would be granted permission to sail to Canada. Of those, many became disillusioned and returned to their countries.
From the moment Canada entered the Second World War, the Department of National Defense took over Pier 21. Halifax became the lifeline for supplies and personnel to Britain.
During the first year of the War, over 3,000 children were evacuated to Canada from war-torn Britain as part of Operation Pied Piper. This came to an abrupt halt after a German U Boat sunk the City of Benares. Seventy-seven children were lost.
Almost all of the 494,874 Europe-bound service personnel embarked from Pier 21 during the War. Fifty thousand did not live to return.
After the war was over, 48,000 British War Brides and their 22,000 children arrived in Canada to take their places in Canadian society. The largest influx was in 1946. Other displaced persons were not accepted for two years after the war until MacKenzie King unveiled his immigration policy showing a shift in preferred ethnic groups.
The busiest years at Pier 21 led up to the mid-fifties when many refugees arrived from the Baltic States, followed by Dutch immigrants seeking farm land and other immigrants from European countries. At this time the largest ethnic groups immigrating to Canada were the British, Americans, Italians, Germans and the Dutch.
As flying became the preferred way of travelling in the 1960s, it became less and less justifiable to keep the facilities open at Pier 21 and so, it was closed.
Pier 21 has just opened its doors once again after an extensive renovation. Doubled in size, there are now exhibits that cover immigration from hundreds of years ago to the present.