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If you have a family that immigrated to Canada between 1928 and 1971, from Europe, then chances are they probably arrived at Pier 21. This pier was the location where over one million immigrants arrived and it is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada. Often compared to Ellis Island in the United States, this pier was often the first thing immigrants saw when they arrived in Canada. Today, we celebrate the 99th anniversary of the first ship arriving at Pier 21 by looking at the history of this National Historic Site.
Originally, Pier 2 was the main pier for processing immigrants. Built in 1880, it was also a major port for troops during the First World War.
As immigration and the size of ships increased, it was found that Pier 2 was simply not large enough to accommodate. In 1913, the peak year for immigration in Canadian history, it was decided that a larger facility was going to be made. As such, a new plan was made for a larger pier to accommodate ocean liner traffic.
Construction was planned but delayed heavily due to the First World War and the Halifax Explosion, the largest accidental man-made explosion in history at the time. In 1928, the pier was finally opened and featured ocean terminals, a complex of freight piers, grain elevators, a train station and a two-storey building that was 600 feet long. In all, the building was 221,000 square feet and it was divided into Pier 20, Pier 21 and Pier 22.
Pier 21 housed the immigration facility on its second floor, and it was where immigrants would go to be detained and examined by medical staff. The annex building next to it featured immigration offices, a booking office, telegraph office and the offices of several Canadian charities. There was also a restaurant where immigrants could get meals before starting the journey west.
The first ship to arrive at Pier 21 was the SS. Nieuw Amsterdam from Holland, which arrived on March 8, 1928. At a special press conference and tour on Nov. 27, 1928, it was declared that the immigration facility was the best on the continent.
The facility would serve several useful purposes over the course of its life until 1971. During the Second World War, 496,000 troops would leave through the pier to fight overseas.
Due to the fact it processed so many people over the course of its operation, it became known as the Gateway to Canada.
During the Great Depression, with immigration numbers plummeting, the pier became a cruise ship destination for individuals on recreational cruises. It would also host some of the largest ships in the world, including the RMS Olympic. While immigration had reached 400,000 people in 1913, 1930 had 105,000, while 1932 had 21,000. It was not until after the Second World War that immigration would rise above 20,000.
Immigration pretty much stopped in 1939 and would continue to be nearly non-existent until 1945.
As such, the pier shipped thousand of troops out, but also welcomed 90,000 aviators who came to Canada to train under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Another 2,000 child evacuees from Great Britain arrived, as did Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Winston Churchill passed through the pier four times during the war to attend conferences with other leaders in North America.
After the Second World War, many immigrants came into Canada from several European countries. A total of 48,000 war brides immigrated through to Canada after the war, and most came through Pier 21. One ship, the SS Walnut, was one of the smallest ships to come into the pier and it had 347 refugees from the Baltic. Its arrival brought about a lot of controversy about postwar refugees, and it helped to define Canada’s future refugee policies.
As several waves of people came through over the next few decades, immigration through ships would taper off. Between 1946 and 1952, 200,000 people would come through the port. In 1951, 94,000 arrived at the port, representing 48 per cent of all the immigrants that year to Canada.
By 1959, 26,000 people immigrated through the port, and in 1970, 1,200 did.
By 1970, the last major group would arrive. They were a group of 100 immigrants who actually arrived by plane, but were then transferred to Pier 21 to be processed. The last ship arrived in 1971, from Amsterdam.
From 1971 to 1991, the facility would be the home of the Nova Scotia Nautical Institute. It would train mariners but in the 1990s, it was renovated and became a space for artists. The port police would take over the immigration annex but ships still arrived. Cruise ships would make a port call at Pier 21, with short recreational visits.
In 1997, Pier 21 became a National Historic Site as it was the last surviving seaport immigration facility in the country. An interpretive centre is now on the grounds. There is also the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A brewing company also began leasing space at the facility, as have retail shops, artist studios and more.