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!

On the Trail of Your Acadian Ancestors: A Visit to Grand-Pré National Historic Site


Already, when I planned on going to Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, I could bet my visit would prove quite significant. I must admit I never expected that I would be moved the way I was though.

My paternal great-grandmother Philomène Leblanc was of Acadian ancestry. The whole time I was there, I couldn't help thinking of her great-grandfather Joseph Leblanc deported from Acadia when he was barely 15 years old. I suddenly realized my family had more than fun facts to disclose: it also made history.

In Grand-Pré, you are at the centre of the Acadian Settlement of the area of Les Mines on the Mines Basin. It is besides wherefrom approximately six thousand Acadians were deported and deprived of their land in 1755.

When you enter the Interpretation Centre, you can watch a 20-minute film on the deportation as well as attend an exhibition on the history of Acadians. Despite that all along the deportation, the British had burned the church and the houses, numerous artifacts were retrieved (such as a 1720 pair of shoes, tools and dishes) and are on display, telling about the daily lives of Acadians. Two iron pots were discovered inserted into one another, stuffed with bark and moss to protect the glass bottles with their expensive French tin-glazed earthenware holders. It is heartbreaking to see that some owners were hiding their valuables, actually hoping to return.

Exiting the main building at the rear end, you then walk towards the statue of Evangeline and the commemorative church (more or less on the site of former Catholic Church Saint-Charles-les-Mines), the former parish cemetery, and the wonderful landscape of the grand pré or large meadow. As mentioned on an informative panel,"it was one of the largest reclamation enterprises of its type. Recent research suggests that the Acadians dyked hundreds of hectares there before their deportation in 1755".

Grand-Pré—no wonder—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vast panorama before your eyes from the View Park, on Old Post Road, lets your imagination run wild and go back in time.

Clearly, my visit paid off owing to Joseph and his family's destiny as they will be the topic of a new chapter in the family history. Indeed, I had only one thought in mind: set myself to work on my tree and document the lives of my Acadian ancestors. If these five families were all living in Saint-Jacques-de-l'Achigan (Quebec) around 1768, they went through different experiences. Following the deportation, the first one was sent to England and to Saint-Servan in France later on; the second and the third were deported to Massachusetts; the fourth, to Connecticut; and finally the fifth was in Acadia and then in Saint-Jacques-de-l'Achigan, but where they were in-between, I still have to find out.

Shortly after my return, I was able to establish that Joseph Leblanc, his siblings and parents were in Nova Scotia's Isle Royale (Cap Breton Island) in 1752. I guess I will have to pack my suitcase once again—genealogy makes you travel, that's for sure!

Living the Life of Your Ancestor in his Native Region—A Unique Experience

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I traveled quite a lot in my life. However, I must confess that the most memorable trips are the ones that included stopovers to places where some of my ancestors came from. Obviously, these visits comprised the local church and cemetery, but they were not my sojourn's most touching moments.

When I stopped by my Tuscan ancestors' village of origin, rather than checking into a hotel, I chose to rent an apartment. One of the best times I had was chit-chatting with the owner who not only told me so much about the village's history but also didn't forget to let me know where I could have a taste of the finest gelato in town—a shop ran by one of her friends, of course!

Another travel experience that left a vivid impression on me was my trip to Lot-et-Garonne department in France, where I met a volunteer from the local genealogical society with whom I had been corresponding. As he was the owner of an orchard, I learned everything there was to know in respect of prune production. Residing in a castle, he shared with me the whole story of the premises as well. It was just fascinating. As for dinner, I was treated with a homemade aperitif wine, a delicious meal—that could have qualified for a banquet!—and a prune with Armagnac for dessert. Absolutely exquisite!

That's what genealogical travels are all about. And this kind of trip is not to be found in a brochure. It is a mix of meeting people, culinary delights, and unique cultural experiences.