Pier 21 was an immigration depot on the Halifax harbourfront that operated from 1928 to 1971. The point of entry for some one million immigrants into Canada — and the point of departure for nearly 500,000 soldiers in the Second World War — it has often been called the “Gateway to Canada." Today it is a national historic site and museum.
1920s and 1930s
Since its founding in 1749, Halifax had always been a popular arrival point for immigrants. As Canadian industries boomed at the turn of the 20th century, immigration grew steadily. By 1913, Canada was welcoming more than 400,000 newcomers each year.
Most immigrants to Canada arrived by ship at an East Coast port, and by the 1920s, about a quarter of all immigrants were coming via Halifax. They entered through the city's modestly sized Pier 2. But immigration officials realized a new facility was needed to accommodate the growing numbers. In 1924, a solution was reached — a massive facility, named Pier 21, would be built on the shore of Halifax harbour. It opened officially in March 1928.
No sooner had the Pier opened than immigration began to wane. The Great Depression, with its meagre job prospects and restrictive immigration policies, led to a significant decline in arrivals. Canadian immigration dropped from almost 105,000 in 1930 to just over 21,000 in 1932, and would never rise above 20,000 until after the Second World War.
Off to War
In 1939, Pier 21 was taken over by the Department of National Defence, becoming a departure point for roughly 500,000 Canadian servicemen and women bound for the Second World War.
After the war, when the soldiers came home through Pier 21, a tide of war brides would return with them. Young, mostly British women, having met and married Canadian servicemen overseas, accompanied their husbands home after the war. Some 48,000 war brides and 22,000 of their children immigrated to Canada, most arriving at Pier 21.
The postwar years were some of the busiest for Pier 21. While Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King favoured conservative immigration policies, he faced pressure from many groups to welcome more newcomers. Business leaders, confronted with labour shortages, lobbied King to open Canada’s doors. Humanitarian groups encouraged the government to provide war refugees (known as Displaced Persons, or DPs) with a new home. Many Canadians were dissatisfied with what they saw as a xenophobic attitude in Ottawa towards immigrants. In 1947, King announced a shift, urging a “sustained policy of immigration.”
Canada was then flooded with DPs; some 200,000 arriving between 1946 and 1952. Pier 21 bustled with new arrivals during this period, receiving almost 94,000 in 1951 alone — 48 per cent of the Canadian total. Many who stepped ashore at Pier 21 had lived through the Holocaust.
One war refugee, Rosalie Abella, summarized what Pier 21 meant to her: “Opportunity, generosity, and idealism is what this Pier stands for — Canada’s best self. It is the Canada that let us in, the Canada that took one generation’s European horror story and made it into another generation’s Canadian fairytale.” Abella was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1946 and arrived in Canada with her parents in 1950. She would go on to become the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
As the refugee crisis began to fade, the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, an anti-Communist rebellion crushed by the Soviet Union, caused a mass exodus of Hungarians. Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Jack Pickersgill, offered free passage to all fleeing Hungarians. Canada welcomed as many as 50,000 Hungarians — 35,000 in December 1956 alone — many of whom came through Pier 21.
For some Hungarians, experiences in Canada were disappointing: Judy Stoffman recalled her father, Ignac Bing — a skilled loom technician who had intended to work in Montréal’s booming textile industry — being told on arrival at Pier 21 that his family would instead have to go to Vancouver, to fill the city’s labour shortage. With no textile industry in British Columbia, her father was forced to work as a taxi driver. “I’ve never understood how an official at Pier 21 had the right to make such a grave decision about my parents’ future, a decision from which there was no appeal,” said Stoffman.
Decline and Renewal
As air travel surpassed shipping as a preferred means of immigration, Pier 21 went into a period of decline during the 1960s — immigration into Halifax dropped from nearly 26,000 in 1959 to less than 1,200 in 1970. The Pier closed in March 1971.
The structure fell into disuse until the late 1980s, when the Pier 21 Society was formed. The society lobbied Ottawa to recognize the Pier as a National Historic Site — a status granted in September 1996, along with $4.5 million in government funds for the creation of a museum on the site. The project was completed on 1 July 1999.
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is one of Halifax’s most popular historic sites. It tells the story of the Pier, the people that passed through it, and the lives they went on to live in their new home. It stands as a reminder of how radically Canada’s character was shaped by immigrants; a testament to the country’s multicultural past and present.