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Pier 21 and the Immigrant Experience

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

“What I found particularly attractive was the complementarity of the two speakers. Robert presented a very well documented history of Pier 21 and the immigration history related to it. Martti beautifully complemented Robert's presentation with a more personal account, using almost poetic language, of his experience, particularly as a young boy coming to Canada. A very enjoyable evening indeed.”

These comments from Costa Kapsalis following the presentations by Robert Vineberg and Martti Lahtinen summarized my own reaction perfectly. Robert Vineberg spoke in his capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, and CNS member Martti Lahtinen spoke as an immigrant who, as a boy about to turn seven years old, came through Pier 21 with his family.

Pier 21 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, was established in 1928 as one of several immigrant processing facilities at major Canadian seaports. Unlike the facility at Quebec City, which was favoured for summer arrivals, Pier 21 was ice-free all year round. It was also convenient for passengers who were in transit to the United States as they could be processed there by American officials. The facility originally consisted of two large assembly areas that could hold 500 passengers each, and these were where most passengers were processed. Additional, smaller rooms were used for further examination, detention, and health care, as required. Many thousands of immigrants to Canada passed through Pier 21 in the years when ships were the standard means of crossing the Atlantic. Its busiest years were from 1928 to 1930 and from 1948-1960, before travel by air became common. No doubt some of our CNS members or their relatives passed through Pier 21. Judith Johnstone, who introduced the speakers, noted that her grandfather passed through its predecessor, Pier 2 in 1913. Treasurer Lennart Nylund, in thanking the speakers, reported that his mother passed through in 1929. Both Judy and Lennart were able to show us the landing cards which had been preserved by their families as mementos of these milestones in their lives.

The front of Pier 21 has not changed much since this early photo

It was interesting to hear how Canada’s “processing” of immigrants developed over the years. By the 1830’s, quarantine stations had already been established near ports of entry, including the largest at Grosse-Île near Quebec City, which opened in 1832. A network of simple immigration sheds was built across the country and they were followed by more elaborate immigration halls, mostly in the Prairies. Some of these halls provided temporary accommodations and even hospitals that provided free health care to new arrivals if needed. The immigration halls served as a temporary base from which to move on to employment opportunities or land available for farming.

During Pier 21’s years of full operation, the process included:

• A medical exam as a follow-up to the one they had received before departure

• Documentation and identification verification

• A customs exam which was performed in the Annex building.

Support services by various religious groups were available, including help finding accommodation. The Red Cross operated a nursery where children could stay while their parents were occupied. Chain link fences and iron railings separated the various areas, which certainly gave an ominous impression to some immigrants, including to the young Martti Lahtinen. They were replaced by plexiglass barriers in the 1950s.

Robert Vineberg reported that of the 74,000 immigrants who passed through in 1950, 504 were Finns. Martti Lahtinen and his family were among the 207 Finns who arrived on March 12, 1950 aboard the MS Gripsholm, the first diesel-powered ship in trans-Atlantic service.

In 1971, Pier 21 closed, a victim of the air age. It was at first rented out as a training facility for marines before being transformed into studio workshop space for local artists. Efforts to preserve Pier 21 as a national immigration museum were successful in 2011. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 traces the history of immigration. The records kept there are used by many to trace their family histories. Meeting, conference and special occasion spaces are available, which are popular due to the Museum’s unrestricted view of the harbour as shown below.

When six-year old Martti Lahtinen entered Pier 21 with his family, he had already lived a very unsettled life. Due to World War II and his family circumstances, he had lived in at least eight different villages in Finland. His paternal grandmother had made the move to Canada many years before and was well established in Winnipeg when she sent for Martti’s family. Martti was not keen to make this additional move just before he was to begin school in Finland, but of course he had no say in the matter. It was a long journey via Stockholm, Gothenburg and Copenhagen. Life on board the Gripsholm became a tiresome routine of scheduled meals and fresh air outings. His mother suffered from seasickness for most of the trip. Half-asleep and “boat-lagged,” the reluctant traveller arrived to what Martti described in his presentation as “noisy bedlam.”

A long train ride to Winnipeg led to only a short stay there, including a week and a half at his first school. From there the family moved to Sudbury, where his father took a job as a printer. Recently, Martti got together with a very elderly friend of his mother’s named Lisa. Lisa had met Martti’s mother onboard the Gripsholm on their way to Canada and they became fast friends. Lisa and Martti shared a certain “maudlin sentimentality for all things Finnish,” as he described it. For many immigrants, there is a certain homesickness that never entirely leaves them. Martti’s article in the March 2019 issue of Nordic News describes his attempts to reconnect with his Finnish roots. Certainly many immigrants became disillusioned with their new home and returned to their native lands. But many persevered in spite of hardships and homesickness, if not for their own sakes, for the sake of their children. Martti and his daughter Reina visited Thunder Bay recently where Reina took a photo of the poem in Marine Park, Thunder Bay, shown below. It puts into words her feelings of gratitude to her grandmother for uprooting herself to come to this new country.

If you or your family entered Canada at Pier 21, I would be happy to hear from you. To share your stories of your family’s immigration to Canada, whether or not through Pier 21, please email me at I will include your stories in the Nordic News.

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