HALIFAX – In 2007, Pier 21, the gateway to Canada for over a million people between 1928 and 1971, was publicly voted one of the Seven Wonders of Canada on the CBC. It was cited as ‘intrinsically linked to Canada’s multicultural identity’, and a celebrated national icon which draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. Yet for all of the ‘history’ that the site – piers 19 to 23 and the Immigration Annex – embodies, there actually seems to be a great deal of history missing.
Construction of the Halifax Ocean Terminals began in 1917, and finished in 1928. However, the sheds were designed as facilities for the reception and transfer of cargo, not people. Debate in the 1920s between government, immigration, and commercial officials as to whether these cold, dark, and primitive structures were really suitable for the welcoming of trans-Atlantic migrants is evidence of divergent attitudes and practices towards immigration and immigrants in Halifax.
Certainly, commercial interests dictated policy on the Halifax waterfront. Steven Schwinghamer, Pier 21’s research coordinator, remarks, ”railway companies would frequently be making announcements on behalf of Immigration,” including where – and subsequently how – the immigration office would operate. Immigration was moved from the more spacious and hospitable Pier 2 in the North End to Pier 21, a freight shed, in 1928 apparently due to pressure from shipping and railway companies.
Schwinghamer also notes that ‘immigration’ was not its own proper office in government until 1950, before which it was a subsidiary to Mines and Resources Canada. In my own conversations with alumni of Pier 21, feeling like ‘livestock’ in the ‘barnyard’ that was this frantic, dim, and cold shed on the mouth of the Halifax harbour seemed routine.
It is interesting then to consider how this oceanside complex for the transfer of cargo and immigrants – resources – became a symbol of Canadian multiculturalism, as well as a creative and cultural hub for the city. Much of what is celebrated could be as much the result of accident as of artifice.
In 1971, after 1.5 million immigrants, refugees, and troops had passed through the doors of Pier 21, after the facility closed and immigration offices relocated to the airport, the area – built up around the aptly named Marginal Road – fell into disrepair.
The disowned sheds were used for some time as a merchant marine training facility, and at other times by police for training in Fighting in Built-up Areas (the Canadian equivalent to SWAT). Children raced their bicycles under the empty piers’ roofs from end to end, and taxi-cabs were dispatched from the former Immigration Annex (now home to Garrison Brewery). However, from an official standpoint, Pier 21 and the Immigration Annex were left behind, without recognition of this space as the first point of contact between over a million people and their new lives.
Interestingly, the artistic community was one of the first to adopt the site and settle it on a long-term basis. Barbara Lounder rented a studio space along Pier 21’s second floor observation deck in the 1980s, and recalls how the ground floor of Pier 21 was being used to store Canadian grain for export to the Soviet Union. She remembers when ”Soviet ships would be moored right alongside the shed and I would look out the studio window and see the hammer and sickle on a ship’s smokestack right outside,” and the Cyrillic graffiti monikers of Russian sailors on the outside walls.
Lounder was among many other artists in Pier 21, along with film crews who used the space for production. ”Everyone was very aware of the history,” says Lounder, but admits there were no expectations that the space might become a museum.
Similarly, John Beale, who immigrated from England in 1947 and now lives in Peggy’s Cove, laughs heartily and shakes his head when asked whether he ever thought the space might become something more than a transfer shed. That said, he is eager to revisit and reconnect with the place of his arrival.
In 1999, the Pier 21 museum opened – though it was not a government-sponsored initiative, but rather the work of a dedicated group of researchers, investors, enthusiasts and Pier 21 alumni. It took ten years for the Canadian government to declare its intent to make Pier 21 a federal museum, with all the resources and advantages that might entail.
The museum and, to a lesser-known extent, artists in the old Ocean Terminals became pathfinders for the revitalization of these spaces straddling Marginal Road, which are now all but completely occupied by several artists’ studios, a well-reputed brewery, a university campus, and soon, the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market.
In a curious cycle, Barbara Lounder is now teaching at the waterfront campus of NSCAD University. For her, as for many others, the rejuvenation of this storied block of Marginal Road is an inspiring stage in the life of the city.
In many ways, the transformation of this Halifax landscape – where, for forty-three years, people entered Canada and went on to transform the landscape of the entire country – is giving the space life, love, and perhaps most importantly, recognition.
Great thanks and appreciation to the Pier 21 Research Centre for allowing this author access to their photo and archival collections.