Your European Ancestor: A Visit to Halifax’s Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21


One might find my family tree somewhat boring. My ancestors were French Canadians with early immigrants being all of France, except for two who were from the 17th century's England. Well, that didn't prevent me from appreciating my visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax!

The museum is relevantly located in the original Pier 21 building wherein one in five Canadians who immigrated to the country from 1928 to 1971 was required to visit in the process. The Pier 21 Story permanent exhibition illustrates the trip that your ancestor embarked on, from the replica of a ship cabin to the Customs hall—where people were anxiously waiting for their name to be called—, to the one of a train car leaving for Quebec, Ontario, and Western Canada.

If for some of them, entering the country was merely a formality—their papers were in order and they had a medical certificate from their country of origin—for others, the medical exam was mandatory and, eventually, a quarantine was next. For candidates with tuberculosis, it meant a return trip to their home country.

The guided tour is quite informative. As our group was composed of European tourists or people of early French Canadian ancestry like me, we were told moving stories—some rather funny—previously shared by immigrant visitors with our guide. Did you know that Italian immigrants nickname us Mangia-cake because Canadian bread was far too sweet for their taste?

Going through customs was similar to today's routine. All these wonderful sausages ended up in the premises garbage can and so was wine exceeding the quantity limit permitted. There was hope though, immigrants could buy some food before taking the train. A replica of a small counter with food for sale included cans from Chef Boyardee's Beefaroni and Franco-American's Spaghetti. What a cultural shock it must have been for them!

And what about your ancestors? Have they gone through Pier 21? They may include Canadian soldiers' wives, known as the "war brides", who arrived between 1941 and 1947, displaced people uprooted by the war, and political refugees escaping Eastern Europe's oppressive regimes, who came to Canada between 1947 and 1954.

Behind the museum showcases were numerous suitcases and trunks, revealing thereby where people came from during these major immigration waves. These artifacts, donated by those who passed through Pier 21, tell the story of what they had to leave behind and start their life all over again.

The most touching thing I saw that day was not from the exhibition itself but actually when I noticed a young family exiting the Scotiabank Family History Centre from Library and Archives Canada at the entrance of the museum—where you may get a copy of your pre-1935 ancestor's immigration record. They were looking at a piece of paper, maybe from their grandparents'. They were clearly—speaking from my own genealogist's experience here—learning some exciting new family facts there!