The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the high points of trans-Atlantic immigration for North America. Many of us are familiar with Ellis Island, the main American immigration centre in New York City where millions traveled from Europe in the hopes of finding something new. The stories of the great ocean liners and other passenger ships of the day making the crossing to the New World. However, there were many other immigration centres in both the United States and Canada. Pier 21, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, functioned as Canada's equivalent to Ellis Island for forty-three years.

Up until 1917, one of the main immigration terminals in Canada, in addition to others located up the Saint Lawrence, was Pier 2, also located in Halifax. However, the Halifax Explosion of December 6 damaged and weakened the facility, reducing the amount of immigrants it could handle at any given time. The damaged facility was not enough to handle the postwar economic boom, however, as 130,000 people arrived every year in the late 1920s, many of whom went through Halifax. Something larger had to be built to replace it. In 1928, "something larger" arrived, with the opening of Pier 21 at Halifax's South Terminal.

By the standards of the 1920s, the new "Immigration Service Facility" was quite modern. The building was, first of all, tremendous - a two-story, 180-meter-long building with space for a variety of facilities. In addition to the large waiting area, it contained immigration processing areas, a hospital, customs agencies, a detention centre, a nursery, canteens, galleys, dormitories, and a pair of covered ramps connecting it to the nearby railway station to speed immigrants' way into the country once they left the terminal.

The timing of Pier 21's opening could have been better; the year after it opened, the Great Depression brought North America crashing down and slowed immigration to a mere trickle for a decade. The facility continued to operate, however, and got the shot in the arm it needed in 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War.

During the war, the facility was taken over by Canada's Department of National Defence and became the primary departure point for almost all Canadian soldiers and airmen who went abroad during the war. Over five hundred thousand departed for Europe from Pier 21; fifty thousand of those did not return. During the war, the pier also saw arrivals from Europe other than the Allied soldiers, as German prisoners of war arrived, in addition to British children went abroad by their parents to escape ahead of anticipated German air raids. Several thousand "Evacuee Children" entered Canada through Pier 21 and lived with foster parents until the end of the war. The evacuee program, however, was cancelled by the British government when two ships, the Volendam and the City of Benares, were torpedoed, killing nearly a hundred of the children. At the end of the war, Pier 21 picked up again at a great pace. The soldiers returned home, bringing 50,000 war brides and their 22,000 children with them.

Another wave of immigrants followed, as the "DPs" - displaced persons who were left without homes and desperate to escape the ruins of Europe, arriving in Canada through the pier by the tens of thousands between 1947 and 1951. Five years later, 40,000 refugees arrived from Hungary during the revolution against the Soviet Union, most of whom passed through Halifax on their way into the country. In 1967-68, the last significant migration arrived: refugees, once again fleeing the Soviets, from Czechoslovakia.

By the 1960s, with aircraft becoming more and more popular, it was becoming obvious that the era of ocean-based immigration was coming to an end. Fewer and fewer ships were arriving at Pier 21 every year, with two immigrants arriving at Montreal's Dorval Airport for every one arriving in Halifax. When Cunard abandoned their passenger trips to Halifax in 1968, it had become obvious that things were coming to an end. In March of 1971, Pier 21 was closed and locked "without ceremony or attention."

The last time Pier 21 was used for immigration, oddly, was after this, when a ship arrived in the following year with refugees from Uganda. Customs representatives and other personnel came in from Halifax International Airport, unlocked the building, and processed its final immigrants.

After the facility's closure, the Pier 21 Society was formed as a non-profit organization with the goal of reopening the facility, this time as a museum and national historic site. After eleven years of lobbying, the Society achieved its goal at the climax of a fundraising campaign. On July 1, 1999, Pier 21 reopened as Canada's immigration museum. After some time spent repairing the facility, parts of which spent much of the interim period as a warehouse for art materials, the Society - about a dozen fulltime staff and vast hordes of volunteers - now presides over a museum consisting of exhibit halls, a theatre, a growing resource centre with immigration records and a modest library, and various other features. Despite the shoestring budget, the immigration-shed-turned-museum is in a steady state of growth as it expands and refines its exhibits and resources.

Well over one million people passed through Pier 21 on their way into Canada during the two generations the facility spent in operation, in addition to half a million soldiers, helped along by hundreds of organizations and thousands of volunteers, from the obligatory Red Cross to the seven Sisters of Service who spent decades - from 1925 until the facility closed - giving their compassion and considerable language skills to countless individuals. There were bad times to the facility as well, largely results of the Cold War and the explicitly racist immigration policies so predominant in North America in the early decades of the century, but the general experience surrounding Pier 21 was positive, and many of the volunteers on-site today were individuals who had first entered the country through the second-floor processing hall.

Overall, Pier 21 manages to live on as a symbol of Canada's (mostly) open-door policy which made it a gateway into the nation for forty-three years. It will admit no more immigrants; they arrive through other places now. Pier 21, the Immigration Service Facility, is no more, but in its place stands Pier 21, the monument to a million people and millions of their descendants who arrived, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs and about twenty dollars, and stayed to help build a nation.

The Pier 21 society maintains a Web page at

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