The Nation’s Business

Pier 21: the place where we became Canadians

Peter C. Newman July 22 1996
The Nation’s Business

Pier 21: the place where we became Canadians

Peter C. Newman July 22 1996

Pier 21: the place where we became Canadians

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

We build and preserve too few monuments to our past, but in Nova Scotia a group of historically minded citizens is organizing a national fund-raising drive to resurrect a derelict pier on the Halifax waterfront. Led by the doughty and energetic Ruth Goldbloom, the project will cost $9 million, with half the funds already pledged by Ottawa, the province and the city.

Rebuilding a rickety harbor shed doesn’t sound all that exciting. But it’s an eminently worthwhile project because Pier 21 was for 43 years (1928-1971) the main gateway to Canada. For more than 1.5 million immigrants, including wartime refugees, children evacuated from the British blitz, 50,000 war brides, and the thousands of postwar arrivals, the oblong structure symbolized the start of a new life.

We have virtually no monuments to the multicultural nature of Canada, to salute those who came here seeking a fresh and better future—which, when you think about it, includes just about all Canadians. We’re a nation of boat people.

Because the newcomers spent only a morning or afternoon being processed inside the building, before being loaded aboard trains that distributed them across the country, most memories of Pier 21 are vague. But the experience of arriving in Canada—which then, and now, is a land that most of the world’s refugees and immigrants dream of—remains unforgettable.

I know. I arrived at Pier 21 in the late summer of 1940, a frightened 10-year-old, escaping with my family from the Nazi occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia, where we had lived. We arrived aboard the Nova Scotia, a small converted cruise ship that had sailed from Liverpool in a convoy that German U-boats attacked twice on the way across the Atlantic.

For most of 18 months, we had been on the run, finally retreating to Bordeaux in southwest France, where we were machine-gunned by Luftwaffe Junkers. This was pretty scary for a 10-year-old whose fantasies were entirely caught up by the prospects of immigrating to the New World. By promising to buy a farm through the CPR, my father had obtained a Canadian visa. That was a rare document because at the time hardly anyone was being allowed in, especially Jews, reflecting the sentiment of the anonymous Ottawa immigration official, who, when asked how many Jewish immigrants Canada should admit, flatly decreed: “None is too many.”

While I dreamt about becoming a Mountie or a naval captain, the only Canadian images I had encountered, my parents worried about the weather. Since we were bound for Canada, “the land of eternal snow,” as we imagined, my mother had hurriedly bought fur coats (made out of rough-haired and slightly pungent British rabbits) for our arrival, even though it was early September. We nearly fried in our getups.

We have no monument to immigrants, yet they include almost all of us. We’re a nation of boat people.

I remember the moment I first sighted Nova Scotia from the ship’s bow, surprised that the trees were green and the soil was brown, since in the few newsreels I had seen of Canada, the land—like the film—had been black and white. I don’t recall the outside of Pier 21, but I vividly recall what happened inside. Instead of being welcomed to our new home, we were tagged— like surplus merchandise at an Eaton’s bargain basement sale— and herded into large cages. In retrospect, this all made good sense. The tags identified our nationalities, dates of arrival, destinations, and so on. The cages were there so that immigration officers could deal with us as groups, particularly where language was concerned.

The moment of greeting the New World—our new world—had been tinted by the kind of bureaucratic regimentation we had been trying to escape. It’s not easy for Canadians born here to comprehend how deeply immigrants feel about arriving in this country. At that magic moment, you realize that whatever happens, nothing will be the same again. The exhilaration is inevitably tinged with fear of the unknown and the anticipated loneliness of having left behind friends and family. But expectations are so high—especially for refugees like us, since we were fleeing the chill of guns—that the impact of anything that disturbs the pure joy of arrival is magnified a thousandfold.

We were lucky. Our papers were in order and an avuncular immigration inspector waved us into the Pier’s Annex, where we were welcomed by volunteers from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. I was handed a Fig Newton. Nothing has tasted better since. Before climbing aboard one of the Canadian National immigrant trains, we decided to celebrate at the coffee shop of the nearby Nova Scotian Hotel. When I had to visit the bathroom, I was confronted by a pay toilet—you put a nickel in the slot before the door would open. I didn’t have a nickel and didn’t know the language well enough to ask for help. Luckily the door was high enough off the floor that I was able to slide under it.

As soon as I did, I realized that if caught, I would immediately be deported, and, in fact, haven’t publicly confessed my sinful ways until now, 56 years and ten months later. But I was never caught, and believe the statute of limitations is now firmly in effect.

Wisely, the plan to restore Pier 21 includes more than architecture. The exhibits will be interactive so that visitors can recreate not just its images but, through computers, the feeling of being quizzed by the officials and admitted to the promised land. Supporting the fund-raising campaign are, among many others, such Establishment heavyweights as Bill Mingo, Peter Bronfman, Martin Connell, John Evans, Trevor Eyton and Dr. Joseph Wong.

I’m delighted that Ruth Goldbloom and her volunteers are restoring Pier 21. But no pay toilets. Please.