At the newly renovated Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, visitors can explore what it is like to be an immigrant, refugee or a displaced person arriving in Canada. A trip to this remarkable museum is a meaningful experience, particularly in light of the Canadian government’s decision to accept 25,000 refugees from Syria this year. Soon, their voices will become part of the Canadian Immigration story.
In the spirit of storytelling, this account of our visit to Pier 21 is written from 3 different perspectives: that of a a 40 year old, a 13 year-old, and a 7-year old. I hope you enjoy sharing our experience:
Helen, 40 years old.
Immigrant from England, 1975
One thing that struck me about Pier 21 is that some of the exhibits are uncomfortable. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 does not aim only to celebrate our immigration history- it also exposes shame, such as that of the Komogata Maru incident, where government policy (The Continuous Passage Act) served as a vehicle for racism and exclusion, in this case against Sikh passengers who were turned away from Vancouver and forced to return to a war torn India despite the fact that every one was a British subject.
A second, happier impression for me, was the view of George’s Island from the upper floors of the museum. My heart fills with awe every time I see it. It was also so meaningful to stand on the spot where our museum guide told us was the actual embarkation point for thousands of new Canadians for so many years: their first footstep on Canadian soil. How exhilarating, how scary…and how wonderful to land in Halifax! – Helen
Adrian, 13 years old.
Cultural Identity: Scottish
In the museum the first thing that I noticed was an empty suitcase. Our friendly museum guide, Elanor said the suitcase with nothing in it represented people that brought nothing because they had nothing at all. Beside the suitcase there was another suitcase and there were blocks of different types of things on the, such as family heirlooms, clothes or books. Elanor told me this was about how you pack your suitcase because you couldn’t bring every thing with you. She said many immigrants had to leave a lot of stuff behind because they didn’t have enough room in a small suitcase.
The other thing that caught my eye was a little thing about the war of 1812. It said during and after the war of 1812 approximately 2000 American slaves escaped to Nova Scotia and to New Brunswick aboard British ships. The group became known as the Black Refugees. Many people in Halifax are descended from this group of people.
Overall, I had a blast at the museum. If I had a choice I would go back to the museum to see the Empress of Ireland exhibit because we didn’t have enough time. – Adrian
Lucy, 7 years old
Cultural Identity: British
The museum was awesome! There were lots of things to do but we didn’t do everything. My favourite thing was designing your own suitcase and my second favourite thing was dressing up as a nurse! I think people who like travelling would enjoy the museum. We had a great time. – Lucy
The Museum of Immigration holds so many stories. Many of the volunteers and guides are immigrants themselves, with their name and the place they came from displayed on a name badge. One volunteer proudly boasts to have come through Pier 21 itself!
There are also opportunities to explore your own family history, with researchers and archivists available in the museum’s research centre a drop-in basis: no appointment necessary.
We spent almost 3 hours at the museum… and it felt like it wasn’t quite long enough. There was so much to do, so much to listen to, so much to read. If you are travelling with children who have a reasonable attention span, I would recommend setting aside an entire afternoon for your visit… and perhaps jaunt down to the Halifax Seaport market for a treat afterwards!
The author would like to thank The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 for the informative guided tour. I would also like to say a special thank you to my diligent junior journalists: Adrian and Lucy. Great job, guys!