Exploring the Halifax Harbourwalk and Pier 21 – Canada’s Immigration Museum

Halifax is a true centre of ocean transport due to being blessed with one of the world’s deepest and largest natural harbours. The harbour’s waters remain ice-free and experience minimal tides and the port generally is the first inbound and the last outbound port to North America from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. It is also a major cruise ship centre: in 2005 108 cruise vessels with over 188,000 visitors docked in Halifax, causing a major economic infusion for the city.

In line with the ocean transportation theme, a monument to a famous Halifax resident is located just south of the entrance gate to the Halifax Port area: Samuel Cunard (1787 to 1865) , a native son of Halifax, is forever commemorated in a bronze statue that prominently presides over the Port of Halifax. Cunard became a Nova Scotia shipping magnate, whose Cunard Steamship Line would run many of the famous transatlantic ocean liners in the 1800s. His primary competitor was the White Star Line, whose ill-fated ocean liner Titanic sank 750 km off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1912. After this disaster, Cunard dominated the transatlantic passenger shipping and his company became one of the most important companies in the world. The Cunard line’s fortune began to decline in the 1950s when air travel became popular, but over the last few years has experienced a major revival with the world renowned Queen Mary 2, the first ocean liner to be built in 30 years, and the largest passenger liner ever built. In 1998 Cunard was taken over by Carnival Corporation, but the Cunard name can still be seen on the side of the Queen Mary 2.

The submarine in front of George’s Island

I was in luck, because as I strolled closer to the pier buildings in the Halifax Port area, I saw that the Queen Mary 2 was indeed in town. An impressive ship, it appears to be about 8 to 10 stories tall and towers over the port buildings. Right here, with the Queen Mary 2 as a backdrop, I had reached my next destination: Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum.

Pier 21 with the Queen Mary 2 in the background

Upon arrival I connected with Stefani Angelopoulos, Communications Manager for the museum who was so kind to give me a personalized tour through this unique facility. Pier 21 is the Canadian equivalent to Ellis Island: more than a million immigrants came through its doors between 1928 and 1971. Until its opening in the late 1990s, the building sat empty as a warehouse and was finally turned into a museum in 1999 and designated as a National Historic Site. It was also the embarkation point for about 500,000 soldiers who were transported from here to fight in the Second World War. Halifax’ strategic importance in linking Canada with Europe became evident once again.

Pier 21 exhibits

Stefani informed me that between 1942 and 1948, more than 48,000 War Brides came to Canada from Britain and other countries in Europe and they brought 22,000 children with them. They had fallen in love with Canadian soldiers and were ready to start their new life in Canada. The vast majority arrived in 1946, 60 years ago, and made their first connection with their new homeland right here in Halifax, at Pier 21. Many then took a train from here to start their new lives in other parts of the country.

I learned that to commemorate the 60 year anniversary, Via Rail came up with a special event in celebration of this occasion: the 2006 War Bride Train which is scheduled to bring hundreds of Canadian War Brides back to Pier 21 where their lives in Canada began. On November 6 the train will depart in Montreal and arrive on November 7 in Halifax where there will be great opportunities for celebration and reminiscing for hundreds of War Brides. Stefani commented that Pier 21 is linked to so many moving human stories that sometimes it is hard to keep a dry eye.

We started our tour at the Research Centre downstairs which has a collection of photographs of over 90% of the ships that transported immigrants to Halifax from 1928 to 1971. Images and newspaper photographs tell the diverse stories of immigrants, mostly from Western Europe and the Mediterranean area. Many images also relate to the almost half a million Canadian troops that departed from Pier 21 in Halifax to join the war effort in Europe during the Second World War.

Pier 21 exhibit

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