Pier 21: The start of something newOn June 24, 2020 by Jeremy Jagusch
Since Live History started, we’ve been lucky enough to perform in castles, cities, trains, ships as well as other venues with such amazing histories. In some cases the places we performed in were homes that were passed onto other families, or venues re-purposed. A history ending while a new one begins. Live History has made me explore my own roots a lot more, especially with a venue we did called The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I firmly believe this is not only one of the most important venues we’ve been to but also one of the most important museums in the country. When Pier 21’s new facility first opened in March of 1928 they became the hub of immigration. In fact it was even front page news in Halifax at the time. Initially, Pier 21 started as one of four waterfront sheds in 1915. It was in 1925 that Canadian National Railway engineers contacted the Department of Immigration and Colonisation to confirm plans for finishing the terminals. It was in 1928 that the new facility opened as an official from Cunard Steamships declared that “Halifax will have the finest immigration facilities of any port in the world” after reviewing the terminals. Before Pier 21 closed its doors in 1971, it welcomed almost a million immigrants into Canada.
During the time of the facilities operation, it has been through its share of challenges such as those caused by the 1929 great depression, WWII, not to mention a major fire that swept through the facility gutting it. Following the reconstruction, Pier 21 would see an influx of immigrants in the 50’s, seeing about 45,000 immigrants arrive each year. The facility would eventually close in 1971. In 1998 the lease for the facility was obtained by a private community historical group called the Pier 21 Society from the Halifax Port Authority. In 2011, the operations of the Pier 21 Society were taken over in turn by the newly-created Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, a federal Crown Corporation.
The exhibits at Pier 21 offer a wonderful window into what new citizens had to go through when coming to their new home. They also display the work of the men and women who worked at Pier 21 since its inception, as a point of entry to new Canadians, right to the staff of the museum has to be commended. Each of the people who helped new Canadians enter their new home should be proud of the job they did. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy. After all, working with the public always presents its challenges, but it was clearly invaluable work, just as the work done by museum staff to not only preserve that work but educate people on what their relatives may have gone through. As a company we are always very fortunate to be welcomed by the community, venue and guests. Pier 21 is one of those venues that I still can’t believe we got to perform in. I hope we get the chance to going back. If you are out in Halifax and are able to, I suggest you pay them a visit. When the team performed there the first time, they made sure that their characters were from all walks of life, from the immigration officers to the Red Cross workers to the immigrants themselves.
For the most part, everyone I know has family who came from somewhere else to start a new life. I’ve heard my parents’ story of course, but typically only the rose tinted glasses parts.
Pier 21 got me really thinking of their experience as well as those of millions of others. When doing research for a show we did there, I was able to look at things in a whole new light. Doing research for our shows is always very eye opening and Pier 21 really is an amazing venue that gives people a very small sliver of what new residents of Canada experienced for the first time in their new home. These people coming from all corners of the world had to really start over. There are obviously many different reasons people leave where they are from and go to start life new. I’m sure some of you have had to do that, a move to a different city to go to school or what not. Imagine travelling on a ship with a bunch of strangers for days or more at a time. Going to a place you’ve potentially never been to before, maybe that you don’t know that much about. You’re potentially cramped, and most of what you own is with you. Maybe you or your ancestors were one of the thousands that came through Pier 21. Through our research, we were surprised to learn just how many families had roots there.
At one point I was just someone driving down a highway in a beat up car with what little I owned, my past behind me, future in front(it would actually be more to the left, but that’s besides the point). Just like at one point my mother was on a plane carrying everything she owned, just like thousands of people were coming with all they owned on a ship. Looking to start a new and hopefully better life. I picture the fear in the eyes of the new citizens as they adjust to the world around them, the sites and smells and even the tastes. “Will the food here agree with me?” When they are able to find that bit of food that reminds them of back home, especially if it’s good, it does just that. It agrees with them. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe they learn to adapt, maybe they learn something they like better. Maybe they love the food here, but then a single day, a single ingredient, a single smell reminds them of back home. It’s ok to love both places; It’s ok to have two homes, and it’s ok to have 2 or more places, 2 or more worlds, make up who you are. The grounds of Pier 21 made up the second half of many new lives, but the first half made them who they were, and gave them the courage to start their adventure. I’ll never forget reading hundreds of those stories and hearing their voices through the pages. These are the stories that make us who we are, no matter where you are from and where you are going.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you in the past.