Learning Canada’s Immigrant History at Pier 21

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A few months ago, we visited Pier 21. It was the first visit in a long time, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid.

Pier 21 has changed a lot from how I remember it. A large new exhibit with many fun and interactive elements has doubled the size of the original footprint, and offers new and varied ways to learn about an important part of Canada’s history.

Whether we realize it or not, many of us have ties that link back to Pier 21. Between 1928 and 1971, more than a million people crossed through this very hall, their first time setting foot in Canada.

Drew’s grandmother was one of those million plus people, a war bride coming to Canada from Scotland. For many settler Canadians, our stories start here. Immigrants from all over the world, some by choice, others who had been displaced by conflicts and war.

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Imagine how many people walked through here, where they were coming from, and where they were going. There’s a good chance your grandmother walked this hallway, too. Or a grandfather, or great grandparent.

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But even if you don’t think you have a personal connection, Pier 21 is an important space for those looking to connect with the history of Canada.

The halls of Pier 21 are home to many stories, and the staff and curators of the museum have set out to tell those stories in a variety of engaging ways.

The museum was expanded in 2015 to include a number of new, interactive exhibits. There is a lot to see, and you’ll want to set aside a few hours to properly explore.

Booths offer prime cozy viewing space to hear the short oral histories of immigrants to Canada – stories from Canadians from many different countries on their first experiences in Canada.

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We took a test with sample questions from the Citizenship Test. Drew did a lot better than I did…

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I loved the section on food (of course), and learning about how immigration has created the global kitchen we enjoy today in Canada. Drew tried his hand at building using cultural architectural features from other countries.

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There are also a number of places where guests can share their customs, traditions, and experiences.

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This interactive map that depicted changes in waves of immigration over the past 10,000 years was my favourite part. It was interesting to watch how time and conflict affected the patterns of immigration to Canada.

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Many of the exhibits I remembered from childhood were still there, as well.

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They’ve packed a lot of history into an already historic space, a place you can stand where an ancestor may have once stood.

With a new year on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about my resolutions. I always set a few. This year exploring family history and marvelling in the beauty of Canada’s many national parks is high up on that list. My Discovery Pass is in the mail, I have some old journals and clippings from my ancestors, and I’m making plans to go back to Pier 21 with my dad, so we can research our family history in the on-site Family History Centre. The centre lets you uncover your own family history, and contains information on Canadian and American immigration history and immigration records prior to 1935.

If brushing up on your personal (and Canadian) history is on your list of resolutions, too, Pier 21 is open year-round. You can find admission prices and hours of operation HERE.

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About the author

Gillian Wesley

Since getting together six years ago, we have given away our television, begun weekly DIY nights, experimented with urban homesteading, challenged ourselves to drive less (100 days car-free in 2013), and have learned more about food security. We have experimented with a range of budgeting strategies, all of which involve consuming less stuff. We buy food with reducing packaging in mind. We got a dog. We have been doing these things for a variety of reasons: financial, social, environmental, to achieve a better work-life balance. It has resulted in us enjoying an increasingly simple and satisfying lifestyle. We’ve been influenced by a lot of people we’ve encountered and things we’ve read about along the way, notably the Transition Movement, the Antigonish Movement, and, more recently, traditional Acadien living. And we’ve learned that we are by no means alone. There are many, many people who are taking steps to downshift their lives. Sign up for our eNewsletter, and we’ll send you a round-up of our new and upcoming projects once a month.

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