Canada’s National Immigration Museum expanding online

Capturing Canada’s immigrant experience, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 reveals emotional stories through digital storytelling, oral histories, online initiatives and more.

Photos by Steve Kaiser

The second largest country in the world expects to welcome close to 250,000 immigrants in 2013. Canada was built on the efforts of newcomers: Since 1869, Canada’s immigration programs have helped build a community of citizens valued around the world.

Often referred to as Canada's version of America's Ellis Island, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site which was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971. Today, Pier 21 hosts the Canadian Museum of Immigration — Canada’s only national museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Opened in 1999, Pier 21 was built to recognize the individual, often challenging stories of immigrants who arrived through the Pier and the migrants who have come after. Exhibits document the stories of war brides, refugees, evacuee children and Canadian military personnel who passed through Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971.

In 1999, the pier was reconditioned and reopened, filled with interesting interpretive exhibits that evoke the uncertainty and angst of the immigration experience.

Inside the Museum’s main exhibition hall, visitors are invited to go on a guided tour with knowledgeable interpreters, view an emotional 30-minute multimedia presentation, Oceans of Hope, (housed in ship-like theatre) and take a virtual train ride across Canada while listening to firsthand accounts of newcomers’ experiences in Canada. As well, the original doors of the immigration facility are still intact and a tour highlight, particularly for those making a pilgrimage to the place where they first set foot in Canada.

An immigrant’s perspective

“I immigrated through Pier 21,” said George Zwaagstra, a 72-year-old volunteer at the museum, “I came to Canada in 1951 because things weren't prosperous where I was coming from in the Netherlands.” George knows firsthand the struggles of the immigrant experience and now provides captivating tours to visitors of the museum.

George came to Canada at age 17.

“It was more of an adventure for me and a bit shocking for my parents.”

He revealed that when he first came to Canada, he struggled like many of the visitors he greets everyday at the Museum, “When I first came here, I worked on a farm as part of my sponsorship and then I joined the Air Force in Canada.”

Eventually finding a career at the Canadian Broadcast Company where he worked making studio sets for television programs but was eventually laid off. “I worked as a carpenter for several years and then retired”.

After visiting Pier 21 with his wife, he decided to volunteer providing his welcoming and informative tours of the Museum.

“People from all kinds of backgrounds come to the Museum, some because of Pier 21 and others are new immigrants,” said George.

The Museum has had prominent visitors from Prime Ministers and the current Canadian Minister of Immigration, still George believes the biggest contribution can come from the elders who immigrated through the Pier, “The parents and grandparents who came through Pier 21, they have stories to tell and we should share them.”

Reaching out

Now, the Museum is now looking to innovative ways to share these remarkable stories ways that can bring the immigration experience together for people across Canada.

Located on the east coast of Canada, some residents on the other side of the country have never had a chance to visit the Museum. A trip to the Museum from Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada, is a five and half hour flight and can be very expensive.

Pier 21 is looking at ways to bring immigrant communities across Canada together and is looking towards the future. The Museum is undergoing a period of transformation and expansion in order to reach out to Canadians across the country and tell the complete Canadian immigration story.

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Comments

National Immigration Museum.

I think this article is well written. Thank you.

One small mistake. When I was interviewed my age was 79.

However I lile to be 72 again.

Thank you,

George.