Pride of Place, Pier 21 Tells the Immigrant Story

Canada’s Museum to Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax. (Allan Lynch Photo)

John Cree’s arrival on the Halifax waterfront in 1929 wasn’t an auspicious start to a new life in a land of opportunity. Fortunately, the stock market crash, which occurred shortly after his arrival, didn’t make much difference to Cree since he was already poor. Homesick and seasick, Cree arrived to a snowy landscape made grey and grim by rain. He was one of the first immigrants to arrive in the newly opened Pier 21 immigration facility beside Halifax Harbour. While the facility was less than a year old, it wasn’t flashy says Cree who slept that first night on a rough wooden bench in cold room.

To immigrate to Canada in the 1920s applicants needed to be a British, American or European farmer. The16-year-old Cree qualified because he had worked on a small farm on the outskirts of Belfast. He arrived with $2 in his pocket, a suitcase containing clippings about war (stolen from library books) and a change of clothes.

After working “the most miserable six months I ever had in my life” on a farm outside Edmonton, where he was cheated and abused by his farm employer, the pluckish Irishman hopped a freight train to Montreal. He rode for days on the roofs of box cars, lashed by wind, rain and smoke from the engine. In spite of the economic hardship of the time, strangers offered him places to sleep and meals. One family gave him a new pair of running shoes, and a CN engineer actually slowed the train down so Cree could jump aboard.

In Montreal he had three options: find a half-brother (whose address he
didn’t know), try to reach an aunt in New York or get caught at the border and be deported home to Ireland. He walked to within five miles of the US border where he met someone who knew his half-brother. The next day he started work putting glue on dynamite for CIL. He worked for CIL for 39 more years, finally retiring to Dartmouth. For Cree, Canada was an adventure that paid off.

Cree’s is just one story in a book that would have 1.5 million chapters – one for each man, woman and child who passed through Pier 21. From 1928 until 1971 Pier 21 was Canada’s Ellis Island, welcoming immigrants, refugees, child evacuees, war brides, defectors and returning members of the armed forces. Over time Pier 21 became a small community within the city of Halifax. It had overnight accommodation for 400 people, a hospital, dining room and kitchen, reception areas, canteen, baggage and storage areas, and even a jail. Ships arrived daily – sometimes as many as four and five ships a day – at all hours of the day or night, discharging hundreds and thousands of frightened, traumatized, and sometimes-happy people looking to escape war, political instability, persecution and hard times in their homelands.

In 1990, to help preserve and tell those many stories, a group of Haligonians, led by a few former immigration officers began discussing the formation of a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. They were prompted by an aging population, who soon wouldn’t be around to tell their stories, and a fading Pier 21. As Canada’s last surviving immigration shed, the once bustling building had become a waterside derelict. It housed a few artist studios, but otherwise was given over to seagulls, pigeons and other vermin.

The Pier 21 Society was formed to establish a memorial to the immigrant experience. Society president Ruth Goldbloom says the group felt, “We had something sitting on the Halifax waterfront that was so important to the history of Canada that if we didn’t do something it would just disappear.”

Goldbloom recalls that former immigration head John LeBlanc felt that so much

At Pier 21 old bags, boxes and trunks tell the nation’s history. (Allan Lynch Photo)

of the historical knowledge and background of Pier 21 was with people who were now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and once they were gone, so was the opportunity to get first-hand experiences of the immigrant experience. Pier 21 presented Canada with an unique opportunity to preserve the past in a way no other museum facility has. Goldbloom says, “We wanted to be able to tell your great-great grandchildren what was it like to arrive in a new country with nothing. We are a country of immigrants, but we’ve never taken the time to say thank you to the immigrant population.”

The group spent years studying the issue and trying to build support for the project. Their big breakthrough came at the end of the 1995 G-7 Economic Summit held in Halifax. As a thank you to the citizens of Canada for hosting the summit, the Prime Minister announced that $4.5 million was available to the Pier 21 Society – contingent on their raising matching funds.

Goldbloom, a diminutive dynamo, criss-crossed Canada raising money from anyone who would listen to her. She called on government departments, corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals to raise the money. In November 1998, work began converting the pier into Canada’s new national historic site.

Pier 21 opened on Canada Day, 1999. Behind the scenes organizers thought if 2,000 people turned out that would be great. In reality 9,000 people came to Pier 21 on that day.

The opening was an emotional roller-coaster ride for those who attended it. The day began with an erie silence, as people of all ethic backgrounds and dress quietly walked as if on as pilgrimage to this south end location.

A black military piper in tartan kilt played while women in dashikis and Louis Vuitton bags, and men in suits and casual wear took their places. War brides arrived on board HMCS Preserver. Mounties came in their scarlet tunics. And the Legion Colour Parties stood as proudly by as when they were young men returning from European battlefields. Everyone had some connection to Pier 21. Many had originally been the brave ones seeking a new life. Others were their sons and daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

Throughout the ceremonies the audience nodded in agreement, wept and clapped. (One woman told Goldbloom that after losing all her family to the Holocaust, she now considers Pier 21 to be her place of birth.) When the Royal salute was given, one grandfather with a swift, loving hand deftly slid a ball cap off his grandson’s head and over the child’s heart. During the robust singing of O Canada most of the crowd shed even more tears.

One of those smiling and crying souls was Mark Kazmirski, a physician in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Dr. Kazmirski arrived in Halifax in 1948, at age 3, with his mother Anne, father Henrik, and baby brother Seymour. His parents were all that remained of their 85-member family, the rest died in the Holocaust.

Mrs Kamirski, who lived in Montreal, still cries recalling their arrival from Germany. “We arrived to Canada and for the first time, it meant to us tasting freedom. Literally hundreds of people lied down and kissed the ground in Halifax. There was a big sign that I remember like today, on the wall. It said Welcome to Canada. Well, it brought tears to our eyes because it meant that we left an ocean of blood behind us and we came to a new beginning to a new country.”

“A Jewish woman came over to us. I think her name was Mrs Sadie Fineberg and she was greeting many, many people. She gave me a loaf of bread and a honey cake which she baked herself. She was the kindest person I ever saw, and not knowing me hugged me and kissed me.”

Sadie Fineberg was like the Florence Nightingale of Pier 21, except that her hands didn’t carry a lamp, she carried a light of a different sort. For 40 years she brought bread and cakes, sandwiches and compassion to people who had experienced untold horrors.

Life in Canada was no bowl of cherries for the Kazmirskis. Henrik has been a dentist in Poland, but wasn’t allowed to practice in Canada until he re-qualified, which meant going back to university. Ann Kazmirskis supported the family doing odd jobs, even scrubbing floors in Montreal. Eventually her husband re-qualified as a dentist and went to work in Montreal and The Laurentians. Their son Mark became a doctor. Their son Seymour was a business man in Hawaii. After her husband’s death in 1971, Mrs Kazmirski went back to school to get a teaching degree so she could teach English as a second language. In retirement she spoke to university students about the holocaust, and also to street kids and prostitutes about making something positive with their lives. Theirs is a not uncommon immigrant story. The Kazmirskis came with nothing. Their possessions fit in a small suitcase. From that they raised and educated a family and continued to help others less fortunate. She wrote a book Witness To Horror about her experiences.

Wooden benches from the arrivals hall at Pier 21. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Sister Salvatrice Liota of the Sisters of Service worked at the pier from 1955 to 1969 as an interpreter (she spoke French, Italian, Spanish and some Hungarian), was also flooded by memories at the Canada Day opening. Recalling her first day at the Pier, she says, “Ohhh, I’ll never forget it. I was horror stricken because when they disembarked they were put in an assembly room and it was all these hard benches and then there was this chicken wire surrounding the area where the benches were. Why they had that chicken wire I don’t know. But Sister took me up to see what the assembly room was like because I was being initiated. I looked through these chicken wires and saw the apprehensive look on their faces. Many were distraught and tired from the journey and looking through that chicken wire made me feel like I was looking at prisoners. It made a horrible impression on me and I have never forgotten it. By the end of the day I was just worn out because it was long hours standing, interviewing the immigrants, interpreting in the Red Cross room, then taking them down to the baggage room and interpreting and helping them there.”

Sister Liota was most affected by the Hungarian refugees who arrived after the civil war in their country. “The Hungarians, that was the saddest. The Hungarians came with army case-offs. Even the women had army cast-off jackets and coats. Very few had a suitcase. So what we did, all the church organizations, we had a big meeting and decided what we were going to give refugees so we wouldn’t overlap. The Salvation Army gave them a shopping bag with an orange and package of cookies. The Lutherans and Presbyterians had clothing. We gave each child a new toy (up to the value of $5, which got good toys). The Baptists and United Church gave them little bags of toilet articles.”

A wall of photos of some of the ships which brought immigrants – and returning warriors – to Canada. (Allan Lynch Photo)

While the new Pier 21 is a marvel of interactive museum, Sister Liota recalls a more earthy place, where she would work 18-22 hour days, sleeping between ship arrivals on benches and boxes in a storage room. On the July 1st opening she said, “I went to the old baggage room and Sister who was with me was talking, but I was just so overcome with emotion. Suddenly re-seeing that baggage room, mentally I could see all the baggage, the sea gulls flying around, the dirty pigeons, and the smell. Oh, the smell was awful!” It was a vile combination of old cheese, olive oil and vomit. “You know when you went home that odor hung to your clothes. And in the winter we just froze because the doors would be open to bring the baggage in off the ship and the wind would blast off the ocean … my legs were frost-bitten one year.”

Not all her memories are sad. Sister Liota giggles at teaching Hungarian refugees to play bingo. She was astonished that “They’d never played bingo!”

The sisters also hosted dances in their nearby mother house. Sister Liota, who had to be up at 6 am for work after morning devotions, would pull the plug on the record player at midnight, but the Hungarians would plug it back in and dance till 2 am.

Ironically now the ships that moor by Pier 21 are cruise ships delivering hundreds of thousands of holidayers where so many dispossessed people once landed.

The Pier 21 museum is a multi-media, interactive facility, which means visitors don’t simply view static displays, but can listen to first-hand recollections of the people who arrived at Pier 21 and worked there. In a mock rail car the floor moves and the Canadian landscape whizzes by, while in small booths a variety of immigrant and refugee experiences play on video. Even the admission ticket resembles a passport which is stamped by attendants dressed as immigration officers. There is an extensive display on the ships which brought many people here and a research centre. But perhaps the most poignant exhibit is a tiny suitcase which visitors are invited to pack. Originally, the packable items included a tea pot, candle stick and some books. The case filled quickly, forcing packers to rethink what to include and leave behind. Now the packing display has representative boxes. This truly emphasis how little many people arrived with.

Not everyone came with nothing. Former chief guard Frank Wright laughs, “After the war, we used to say the Dutch arrived with everything but the kitchen sink. They arrived with large crates you could park a Volkswagen in. … One day they opened a crate up and it had a kitchen sink, so we couldn’t say that anymore.”

However, a significant number of arrivals came with little more than a change of

Throughout the facility, trunks tell the story of individual immigrants. (Allan Lynch Photo)

clothes. Maisie Lugar (nee Goat) of Bedford, was a child evacuee who came from a suburb of London in July 1940. She arrived on the first boatload of child evacuees from Britain. Lugar was 11. She recalls, “Your parents were given a list of what you could take: two pair underwear, two pair of socks … it was ridiculous really.” Lugar, 11, her brothers Stanley, 12, and Ronald, 7, each carried a small suitcase, knapsack and gas mask for a trip that lasted five years. They were three of the 3,000 children sent to Canada during the war. She was lucky. Another ship of children in their convoy, the City of Benares, was torpedoed.

Ruby Grey, a Sussex NB war bride arrived in June 18, 1945, and recalled that after years of clothing rationing she arrived with very little. “You didn’t have many clothes. I did arrive in a Harris Tweed suit” purchased with a clothing allowance from Canada. But Grey wasn’t much bothered by the clothes nor was she homesick or fearful about starting a new life in a land she knew little of. “No, no, I was in love. Who thinks about the future that much, except that you want to spent it together,” she scoffs.

What she does remember was a land of plenty after years of rationing. “There was lots of food. I gained ten pounds in the first month. Everybody complained about rationing here, but they really didn’t know too much about rationing. There was white bread and butter. And there were very few fresh eggs at home, so I had eggs every morning for my breakfast and fruit.”

One family who weren’t fleeing war or poverty was Finn Sander’s family from Copenhagen. Sander recalls his parents where fed the streets-are-paved with-gold line by his uncle. His father, who owned his own garage and employed 10 people in Copenhagen, sold their business and possessions and moved their small family to the new world for a better opportunity for Finn. “This was postwar Europe and Denmark like most other countries in Europe at the time were stagnating economically, and America – that’s what we called everything over here- seemed to hold good prospects both for them and my future. We had an uncle over here who painted things in glowing terms.”

Unfortunately for his parents, the uncle’s letters turned out to be full of empty promises. “The bubble burst the moment we arrived,” says Sander. “He wanted to borrow $50 from my dad and we ended up in a small rooming house somewhere overlooking a miserable, dirty, wet back alley” on the wrong side of the tracks in Montreal.

The Sanders proved the adage about hard-working immigrants. They would take any low paying job that others rejected. Poul Sanders got a job working for a company earning $40 a week (with monthly rent of $80). The young Finn took summer jobs working on a farm outside the city. While beaten up and tormented by the other farm hands he contributed $10 a week to the family, which was vital. In time his father became vice president of the company, and Finn became a biology professor at McGill, director of a research institute in the Bahamas and director of Dalhousie University’s biology department.

In a type of comic relief to many stories is the experience of two Irish lads who made lives in Canada. John Maloney and a friend named Murphy arrived in 1950 with $67 between them and no job prospects. The trip was a lark. Maloney says Murphy came by to say goodbye and I said, “gawd, that’s a good idea. Get me a ticket too. I went in and handed in my resignation. We both had good jobs, but there was no real future with them. Ireland in those times was pretty rough.”

They boarded ship and partied their way across the Atlantic. And therein lies their problem. “To get through customs we each had to have $50. Well, between the two of us we only had $67 left, so I went through first and put the money in hip pocket. Murphy took it out of my hip pocket and showed it. The immigration officer says, ‘Oh you each have the same amount?’ We immediately said, ‘Oh yeah, we split everything down the middle’, and he waived us through.”

The enterprising and bold Irishmen hopped the train to Toronto with no thought of where they were going or what they were going to do. On a street car they heard an Irish brogue and asked where they should go. They stood outside two churches. “Murphy stood outside one, and I stood outside the other. We each had a sign that said, ‘help us, just landed’. A French Canadian family said, ‘Come with us’. They gave us a place to stay and groceries and fixed everything up. We had a great time.”

“Murphy worked next day, and I worked the second day” as a postal clerk at the Safety Supply Company, for minimum wage. “But we survived on it till we found better. And that’s what all the Irish did those days. And boy we were welcomed in this country. … It was a different attitude. The war had ended, there was a shortage of men, both for the ladies” he chuckles “and the employment.”

Now retired Maloney served in the RCAF and went on to become an RCMP officer and later worked as a town police officer in Chatham, New Brunswick.

While most people arriving at Pier 21 would be anxious to please and be allowed into Canada, Lunenburg resident Carolyn Matthews showed a strip of the British bulldog. Matthews was the last immigrant to land at Pier 21 on June 21, 1971. This happened because she had strict views about child rearing. “The boat came in about 9 am, (and you don’t disembark right away). As it so happened my children got fed promptly at 12 noon. And after lunch they have a nap. The youngest was only six months old and the oldest was four-and-a-half. He still napped a little. But the youngest had problems all the way along with digestive troubles, so when he slept he was not allowed to be woken up,” she chuckled. “And he was allowed to sleep for as long as he wanted to sleep, which he did.”

While the children slept her husband got their luggage off the ship. “Everything had disappeared. The rest of the people on the boat disappeared, so anyway finally he (the baby) awoke and it was a wash, change and dress and ready to go. As we stepped off the boat I thought it looked a little deserted, there was nobody around… I have no idea what time we got off the boat because I went by the children’s clocks not by what watches said. So I was the last off the boat.”

One woman who knows both sides of the immigrant story is Marianne Ferguson (nee Echt). She arrived March 7, 1939, aged 13, with her mother, father, grandmother and two sisters from Danzig. “We came because the situation in Danzig and in Germany was becoming very bad for Jews.” After Kristallnacht, when all the windows were broken in her father’s businesses, they began to make arrangements to leave.

Her father had friends in the bank who quietly sold him American dollars, which he mailed to a cousin in New York. And he fit the immigration requirements because he owned a small hobby farm. Echt recalls leaving their home for the boat in twos, so as not to create suspicion. They came to Canada knowing little except that “it was an English speaking country and that it was a free country and you wouldn’t have to be afraid like you were in the German countries.

On arrival, her family, who were not impressed by the pier, noticed how nice the people were. “We had planned to go to Montreal and then my parents saw the people here were so kind that we stayed.”

They purchased a farm in Milford Station where the United Church minister’s wife asked Mrs. Echt to join the auxiliary “because, she said, there’s nothing here for you (as a Jew in terms of a community), but the women all get together. They knit and do things for the war and she said why shouldn’t you be amongst them? You don’t have to go to church but you can be in with all these women. As the minister’s wife said, you wouldn’t get to know anybody otherwise. It was kind of nice,” smiles Echt.

The plaza in front of Pier 21 is dedicated to “The Nation Builders”. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Eventually she and her mother volunteered for 10 years at Pier 21 helping to translate for immigrants. “A lot of people were very depressed and very apprehensive and worried. I mean they came from concentration camps and someone just had to call their name and they would look around and think that somebody followed them from Europe and wanted to put them in some kind of a jail. When we went over to them and spoke to them they were so much happier because we could speak their language. We told them we came to help them.”

She returned to volunteer at the reopened Pier 21. Ferguson laughed that thanks to Pier 21 “It feels really good to have been an immigrant because I think when you first come and you’re an immigrant, sometimes people look a little bit down on you. Now with all this fuss about Pier 21, if you once were an immigrant, they look up to you. It seems that people are proud now.”

Recalling the opening of Pier 21 as a national historic site to immigration, Mark Kazimiski said, “I think it was a spiritual day, a very emotional day. And what’s so Canadian about it is it’s really Canadians who are celebrating what immigrants meant to Canada, which is really typically Canadian. They were celebrating immigrants and their contribution to Canada.” He chuckled, “Not many countries do that.”

Whether you are from the quarter of the Canadian population who trace their roots to this Halifax pier, Pier 21 National Historic Site is a worthy visit. It is a history lesson, a place of pilgrimage and a source of inspiration and pride.


The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is located on the Halifax waterfront at 1055 Marginal Road (behind the Westin Nova Scotian Hotel). Tel.: 902-425-7770 / 1-855-526-4721.


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