Pier 21 now national museum.
Historic entry point to have higher profile
By IAN FAIRCLOUGH Staff Reporter, Chronicle Heral Tue, Feb 8, 2011
GEORGE ZWAAGSTRA pulls out a well-worn passport, an ID card and a 60-year-old photo of himself, and then asks with a laugh, “I haven’t changed one bit, have I?” The passport won’t get him on an airplane today, but in 1951 it got the then-17-year-old onto a ship and headed from the Netherlands to Canada, where he and other family members arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax. Zwaagstra and a handful of other people who passed through the immigration centre were on hand Monday for the inauguration of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
While the museum has been there since 1999, it is now designated a national museum, which will give it a better online presence and the ability to deliver all its content in at least two languages. Zwaagstra remembers the day well. “It was April 27, and I walked off the ship here at 10 to five in the afternoon,” he said.
And he remembers that coming into the harbour “was a beautiful sight,” especially after eight days at sea on the ship Georgic. He came over with his father, mother and younger brother. A year later, his older brother came to their new home. His older brother found a sponsor for his parents on a farm in Shubenacadie, so they stayed in Nova Scotia while most other people went westward. “At that time, hardly anybody stayed in Nova Scotia,” he said.
“When we walked off the ship, we were the only ones on the whole ship who actually stayed in Nova Scotia.” He said they left their homeland in large part because his parents were unhappy with the politics there at that time. The Netherlands didn’t start to rebuild the war-ravaged country until the late 1950s.
Ralph Chiodo’s mother left southern Italy in 1957 with Ralph and two siblings because there weren’t many opportunities in the old country. The family arrived at Pier 21 on March 27. Ralph was 14 and has vivid memories of that day: coming off the ship, the fact his mother was sick for the entire journey to Halifax, and being met by nuns from the Sisters of Service. “They took care of us. We were greeted by all kinds of generosity,” Chiodo said.
“We had a two-day journey ahead of us to Toronto, and a man came to my mother and said, ‘Senora, you’re going to be on the train for two days and two nights, and on the train there’s no food.’ He pointed to a little store within Pier 21, and he suggested we go there and get some bread and some of the canned Spam, and gave my mother the money. I have never forgotten that.” Chiodo said the museum is important. “It keeps the memory alive. It reminds us and our families, and our children and grandchildren, what immigrants did and how we got here. It’s extremely important.”
He said becoming a national museum means Pier 21 will become better known across the country. Central Nova MP Peter MacKay, who officially inaugurated the museum, said the museum “pays tribute to the contributions of so many men and women and children all over the world who made the decision to come here, to first touch Canadian soil here in Halifax and to make Canada their home.” He said the museum “highlights the essential role that immigrants have played in the building of our nation, and continue to play in shaping our nation, shaping the Canada that we know and love today.” Pier 21 is Canada’s sixth national museum and first outside the Ottawa region, MacKay said. It operated as an immigration centre from 1928 to1971, seeing more than one million people come to Canada.
Pier 21 now national museum.