We Need To Extend Pier 21 Across Canada

From the Globe and Mail, March 18, 2010

Laura Madokoro


We need to extend Pier 21 across Canada

In announcing a National Museum of Immigration in this month’s Throne Speech, the Harper government declared: “Our identities are bound up in the stories of ancestors from hundreds of lands.” For this reason, the Conservatives want Pier 21, “the site where so many began their Canadian journey,” to represent Canada’s immigration story. But here’s a question: What if your family didn’t begin its journey in Halifax?


Does it make sense for people whose families arrived in the west to go all the way to the east to find out what Canada’s national immigration history looks like? Well, not really. Rather than concentrating all of its energies in one place, the government should be encouraging the development of immigration centres across the country and supporting a robust online presence so everyone, regardless of where they reside, can contribute to the living legacy of decades of immigration to all parts of Canada from all parts of the world.

Since Pier 21 opened its doors to the public in 1999, it has educated millions of visitors about the migrant experience to Canada, with exhibits documenting the stories of war brides, refugees, evacuee children and Canadian military personnel who passed through Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971. It has brought to life the hopes and fears of people arriving on Canada’s eastern shores during the turbulent 20th century. Visitors can walk around the refurbished port, then have a “migrant experience” by boarding a train that moves west to Montreal and Toronto, then Vancouver. But told this way, immigration to Canada goes in only one direction.

What about the thousands of people who crossed the Pacific as fishermen, miners, workers, picture brides, merchants and traders to try their hand at life in Canada? For Chinese, Japanese and Indians, migrating and settling in Canada was very different from the European experience.

Chinese migrants had to pay a head tax from 1885 to 1923 and were banned almost completely from 1923 to 1947. Early 20th-century immigration rules made it almost impossible for Indians to come to Canada according to “continuous journey” regulations that basically required them to be on one boat from India to Canada. For Japanese Canadians, migration is intimately linked to their removal from the West Coast and internment during the Second World War.

All of these groups, and many more communities in Western Canada, have their own migration stories about establishing themselves in this country after crossing the Pacific. Sadly, these experiences keep getting ignored. One has only to think of the dynamic Celtic presence during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics and the absence of any Asian presence to see the dichotomy.

In the United States, the diversity of the migrant experience is captured in multiple immigration centres. The most famous is the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, but it’s not the only one. From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island, just outside of San Francisco, processed hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants. Called the “Ellis Island of the West,” immigration officers who worked there preferred “Guardian of the Western Gate.”

Today, visitors can learn about Pacific history by walking through the former barracks. The nearby National Archives makes it possible for people to do genealogical research, so they can locate their family’s arrival, then visit the actual place where it occurred. President Barack Obama recognized the power of connecting physical spaces with historical experiences by declaring Jan. 21 to be National Angel Island Day and encouraging Americans to learn more about its history and their own.

Like the United States, Canada has a treasure trove of resources that can be mined to make its immigration history both nationally and locally relevant. Library and Archives Canada holds thousands of documents, including passenger lists and immigration registers that record who came, when and from where. The problem is that the originals are in conservation, hidden away from public view, and the microfilmed versions and limited online access are insufficient for inspiring a sense of the migrant experience. It’s hard to get excited about an old government file appearing blurrily on a small screen.

But what a difference it would make if you could examine your grandfather’s immigration record in the same place he arrived 80 years ago. Wouldn’t it be great if students could be encouraged to conduct oral histories with older generations using historical materials relevant to their local community as a starting point?

Connecting the past with the present is the magic of Pier 21. But there’s no reason why Western Canadians shouldn’t experience the same thrill. All Canadians should have access to the immigration materials most relevant to them.

Laura Madokoro, the 2009 Trudeau Scholar and Liu Institute Scholar, is a Assistant Professor in history at McGill University.

Special to The Globe and Mail, Published Thursday Mar. 18 2010, 4:05 PM EDT, Last updated Thursday, Aug. 23 2012, 1:33 PM EDT

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