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The Gateway into Canada: Halifax's Pier 21

This story was initially published in 2008

On March 28, 1971, Pier 21 was quietly closed down 43 years after opening as Canada’s premier entrance port for immigrants to Canada.

Two young boys awaiting clearance at Pier 21 after arriving on the SS Argentina, 1952
© Library and Archives Canada / Chris Lund / National Film Board collection / PA-152023
Pier 21 was built in the early 1920s as a replacement for Pier 2, which was badly damaged in the Halifax explosion in 1917. It was decided that instead of repairing the building, a larger, more modern complex would be built.

Pier 21 opened March 8, 1928 when the Nieuw Amsterdam docked. The complex itself was made up of a number of small buildings joined together by ramps linking to the railway. These buildings included: immigration services, customs, health and welfare, the Red Cross, dormitories, detention rooms, and a dining room, among others.

Pier 21 was busy from the start. In 1929 alone, more than 165,000 newcomers passed through the complex. During the Second World War, the buildings were taken over by the Department of National Defence to move troops and supplies to Britain. In total, 494,874 Canadian troops sailed from Pier 21.

Present day Pier 21
© Pier 21 Society Collection, 2007

It also welcomed 3000 British children into Canada to escape the war, known as the British Guest Children. This program ceased, however, after two ships carrying the children were destroyed at sea.

The next large group to pass through the Pier were the War Brides. These 48,000 women met and fell in love with Canadian soldiers during the war. They arrived alone in an unknown country unsure of what to expect, many not even recognizing their husbands out of uniform.

The years following the war were the busiest ever for Pier 21. Many European countries had been devastated, leaving thousands without a home. In addition to the 100,000 refugees who arrived in Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of displaced persons and immigrants made the journey to Pier 21 hoping for a better life.

In 1968 the end was near. The year marked the first time that immigrants arriving by air outnumbered those by ship and it was clear that the times had changed; soon after Pier 21 was closed.

Pier 21 was designated a National Historic Site in 1999. On July 1, 1999, the complex was re-opened by the Pier 21 Society as “Canada’s Immigration Museum.” In 2007, Pier 21, Canada’s last remaining immigration shed, was chosen as one of CBC’s Seven Wonders of Canada for standing as a symbol of Canada’s multicultural identity.

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