People in the United States look to Ellis Island as the port of entry for many of the immigrants to our country. In Canada, Halifax was that port, and Pier 21 was where people were either welcomed or turned away. I visited Pier 21 on a rain-soaked day a year ago. Like Ellis Island its a museum now. A place to visit, learn and reflect. For me it was a welcome reprieve from the sideways rain and on that day I almost had the place to myself. I’d also arrived at the end of the day and entry is free in the last hour, so I took advantage of the opportunity.
Ellis Island was the major entry point for immigrants to North America, taking in over 12 million people from 1892 and 1954. By comparison, Halifax was active between 1928 and 1971 and took in about 1 million immigrants through Pier 21. Quebec City and Vancouver were also entry points for immigrants to Canada, spreading the load between these three eased the burden on Halifax. Pier 21 is the only site still in existence today.
Walking around the Pier 21 museum essentially alone on that rainy day it was easy to immerse yourself in the stories of the immigrants who came through this point of entry. I’m generally more sympathetic to the plight of immigrants than most, and hearing stories about desperate immigrants who were turned away angers me. The most famous example of course is the HS St Louis, with over 907 refugees fleeing the Nazis, being turned away from the United States, this port in Halifax, Canada and Cuba before having to return to Europe. 254 of those refugees died in the Holocaust. Canadian President Justin Trudeau announced this week that Canada would formally apologize for that act. Certainly I believe everyone should know about the plight of the HS St Louis before they blithely turn a blind eye on the latest generation of refugees.
I’ve heard about ancestors who came through Halifax and have wanted to spend a little time researching it, but I keep putting it off. As a history buff I’m not sure why I wouldn’t dive deeper into my own family history. Maybe that’s a good goal for the remainder of 2018. Certainly another excuse to get to Halifax is always welcome. Travel has a way of opening your eyes to the rest of the world. And the world could use a little more empathy today.