John Cree’s arrival on the Halifax waterfront in 1929 wasn’t an auspicious start to a new life in a land of opportunity. Fortunately, the stock market crash, which occurred shortly after his arrival, didn’t make much difference to Cree since he was already poor. Homesick and seasick, Cree arrived to a snowy landscape made grey and grim by rain. He was one of the first immigrants to arrive in the newly opened Pier 21 immigration facility beside Halifax Harbour. While the facility was less than a year old, it wasn’t flashy says Cree who slept that first night on a rough wooden bench in cold room.
After working “the most miserable six months I ever had in my life” on a farm outside Edmonton, where he was cheated and abused by his farm employer, the pluckish Irishman hopped a freight train to Montreal. He rode for days on the roofs of box cars, lashed by wind, rain and smoke from the engine. In spite of the economic hardship of the time, strangers offered him places to sleep and meals. One family gave him a new pair of running shoes, and a CN engineer actually slowed the train down so Cree could jump aboard.
In Montreal he had three options: find a half-brother (whose address he didn’t know), try to reach an aunt in New York or get caught at the border and be deported home to Ireland. He walked to within five miles of the US border where he met someone who knew his half-brother. The next day he started work putting glue on dynamite for CIL. He worked for CIL for 39 more years, finally retiring to Dartmouth. For Cree, Canada was an adventure that paid off.
Cree’s is just one story in a book that would have 1.5 million chapters – one for each man, woman and child who passed through Pier 21. From 1928 until 1971 Pier 21 was Canada’s Ellis Island, welcoming immigrants, refugees, child evacuees, war brides, defectors and returning members of the armed forces. Over time Pier 21 became a small community within the city of Halifax. It had overnight accommodation for 400 people, a hospital, dining room and kitchen, reception areas, canteen, baggage and storage areas, and even a jail. Ships arrived daily – sometimes as many as four and five ships a day – at all hours of the day or night, discharging hundreds and thousands of frightened, traumatized, and sometimes-happy people looking to escape war, political instability, persecution and hard times in their homelands.
In 1990, to help preserve and tell those many stories, a group of Haligonians, led by a few former immigration officers began discussing the formation of a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. They were prompted by an aging population, who soon wouldn’t be around to tell their stories, and a fading Pier 21. As Canada’s last surviving immigration shed, the once bustling building had become a waterside derelict. It housed a few artist studios, but otherwise was given over to seagulls, pigeons and other vermin.
The Pier 21 Society was formed to establish a memorial to the immigrant experience. Society president Ruth Goldbloom says the group felt, “We had something sitting on the Halifax waterfront that was so important to the history of Canada that if we didn’t do something it would just disappear.”
Goldbloom recalls that former immigration head John LeBlanc felt that so
much of the historical knowledge and background of Pier 21 was with people who were now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and once they were gone, so was the opportunity to get first-hand experiences of the immigrant experience. Pier 21 presented Canada with an unique opportunity to preserve the past in a way no other museum facility has. Goldbloom says, “We wanted to be able to tell your great-great grandchildren what was it like to arrive in a new country with nothing. We are a country of immigrants, but we’ve never taken the time to say thank you to the immigrant population.”
The group spent years studying the issue and trying to build support for the project. Their big breakthrough came at the end of the 1995 G-7 Economic Summit held in Halifax. As a thank you to the citizens of Canada for hosting the summit, the Prime Minister announced that $4.5 million was available to the Pier 21 Society – contingent on their raising matching funds.
Goldbloom, a diminutive dynamo, criss-crossed Canada raising money from anyone who would listen to her. She called on government departments, corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals to raise the money. In November 1998, work began converting the pier into Canada’s new national historic site.
Pier 21 opened on Canada Day, 1999. Behind the scenes organizers thought if 2,000 people turned out that would be great. In reality 9,000 people came to Pier 21 on that day.
The opening was an emotional roller-coaster ride for those who attended it. The day began with an erie silence, as people of all ethic backgrounds and dress quietly walked as if on as pilgrimage to this south end location.
A black military piper in tartan kilt played while women in dashikis and Louis Vuitton bags, and men in suits and casual wear took their places. War brides arrived on board HMCS Preserver. Mounties came in their scarlet tunics. And the Legion Colour Parties stood as proudly by as when they were young men returning from European battlefields. Everyone had some connection to Pier 21. Many had originally been the brave ones seeking a new life. Others were their sons and daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
Throughout the ceremonies the audience nodded in agreement, wept and clapped. (One woman told Goldbloom that after losing all her family to the Holocaust, she now considers Pier 21 to be her place of birth.) When the Royal salute was given, one grandfather with a swift, loving hand deftly slid a ball cap off his grandson’s head and over the child’s heart. During the robust singing of O Canada most of the crowd shed even more tears.