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Pier 21 Museum

Pier 21

What was once an immigration shed, is now a National museum.  The Walnut's arrival in Halifax is now included in multiple museum displays.

What is Pier 21?

Pier 21 was an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed from 1928 to 1971 in the port of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. Construction of the pier was delayed by World War I and the Halifax Explosion, but by 1928 the facility was complete and a part of the Ocean Terminals development in Halifax. Called the shed, it was divided into Piers 20, 21, and 22, and faced a long sea wall which could dock the biggest ocean liners in operation.

Below:    In order that visitors can orient themselves within the remodelled museum space, scale models of the historic buildings at Pier 21 were created.  Photos: Tiiu Roiser 2016    Read about the making of the models.

The immigration facility on the second floor of the shed at Pier 21 housed the assembly hall for immigrants, as well as medical and detention quarters. This is where Walnut passengers would have been led. Adjacent to the Pier 21 shed was a two-story, brick annex building connected to the shed by an overhead walkway. The annex contained immigration offices, customs, a railway booking office, a telegraph office, offices for charities such as the Canadian Red Cross, and a restaurant where immigrants could get meals before their long train journeys west.

The pier is often compared to America’s Ellis Island. Informally, it became known as the “Gateway to Canada”. Over one million immigrants came to Canada through Pier 21, including the passengers of the little ship Walnut.

In 1990, an independent institution named the Pier 21 Society was founded to raise funds, renew the public’s interest in the derelict shed, and create a museum.

September 1997 the Pier 21 facility was designated a National Historic site of Canada on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada because of the facility’s major role in 10th century immigration in Canada and because it is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada.

In cooperation with the Halifax Port Authority, Pier 21 was re-opened as a museum on Canada Day in 1999. In June of 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a Statement of Intention to designate a National museum of Immigration at the Pier. Later that year, Pier 21 was chosen to compete in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Seven Wonders of Canada” television show and placed in the top seven places. Pier 21 became Canada’s National Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 on February 7th, 2011, occupying the former ocean liner terminal and immigration shed.

Located on Halifax’s waterfront, the museum has now doubled its original size to make space for more exhibits that tell the broader story of Canadian immigration, from hundreds of years ago to the present day. The museum has become one of Halifax’s top tourist attractions.

Read more about the history of Pier 21.
Below:  Current museum and area images.  Photos:  Tiiu Roiser 

* Extending from piers 19 to 23, you will now find artisans, retailers, cruise terminals, event facilities, cafes, offices, the Pier 21 museum, a umiversity and the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market.  The district's redevelopment is now a popular destination for locals and visitors.

PM announces Canada’s newest national museum at Pier 21
Pier 21 to serve as monument to the role immigrants have played in Canadian history

June 25, 2009 -

Historic Halifax landmark Pier 21 will be the site of Canada’s newest national museum, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today. The new national museum will be dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the contributions of immigrants and new Canadians to Canada’s culture, history and heritage.

“No country in the world has benefited more than Canada from free and open immigration,” said the Prime Minister. "In every region and across all professions, new Canadians make major contributions to our culture, economy and way of life. It takes a special kind of person to uproot and move to a new country to ensure a better future for your family. Anybody who makes the decision to live, work and build a life in our country represents the very best of what it means to be Canadian.”

Currently a national historic site, Pier 21 served as a primary gateway for immigrants to Canada from 1928 to 1971. It was the point of entry for more than a million new Canadians over that period. It was also the point of departure for 500,000 troops who fought for Canada during the Second World War. As a result, one in five Canadians can now trace a relationship to this historic site. 

“The story of Pier 21 is intertwined with the story of Canada,” said the Prime Minister. “Creating a national museum at Pier 21 is a fitting monument to Canada’s values and the role immigrants play in our country’s history.”

The Government of Canada, Pier 21 Society, Pier 21 Foundation and Halifax Port Authority are partnering to support the new national museum at Pier 21. This will be just the sixth national museum in Canada and only the second national museum outside of Canada’s National Capital Region.

Harper Pier 21

Prime Minister Stephen Harper concluded his June 25th, 2009, announcement by paying homage to this special place with the words of the late J.P. Leblanc from his "Ode to Pier 21".  He quoted:  

"Silent, I am the platform that processed kings, queens, princes and paupers, intrepid pioneers, detainees, inadmissibles, lost souls, the penniless, the threadbare, refugees from tyranny, oppression and revolutions, and displaced peoples. Each sought land, hope, harmony, liberty; I greeted them all."

Halifax, Nova Scotia
Source: Office of the Prime Minister 

PM Announcement at Pier 21, Halifax - CTV
Watch on YouTube (9:36 min)

Historic Halifax landmark Pier 21 will be the site of Canada's newest national museum, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today. The new national museum will be dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the contributions of immigrants and new Canadians to Canada's culture, history and heritage.

The Walnut in Halifax

The following is a translation of an article which describes one man's arrival at Pier 21. Although the memories are those of A. Kalbus, the author of the article itself is not mentioned.  Found amongst one passenger's newspaper clippings, the date and source are not visible.  It can be assume that it appeared in print somewhere outside of Canada shortly after Dec. 1948.  

This is not an exact translation of the Estonian text, but rather a very close English duplication of the author's writing.   [ ] brackets indicate translator's comments.   
Translated by Tiiu Roiser-Chorowiec. 

Right:  The Walnut passengers aboard the ship in the dining area.

Walnut ship eating.

"The Walnut in Halifax" 
Source, author and date unknown. Other than original newspaper photograph above, the other images have been added. 

The refugee ship Walnut, the fate of which we last knew arriving in Sidney harbor, has now moved on to Halifax, where the refugees have been moved to an immigration camp. Travel organizer A. Kalbus has written us about his first impressions, space for which we here provide:  

"We are in Halifax, Canada's largest port city.  We have slept our first night in camp [meaning refugee camp] beds.  When asked by other passengers how did you sleep, almost everyone answered - badly.  We are missing what we had gotten accustomed to - the rocking, the murmur of the wind, the noise of the water.  Perhaps we should take turns to rock the beds and throw water against the walls, then we could sleep again! 

We stopped at the Sydney pier for two days since there were gale force winds of 9 on the Atlantic.   This raged itself out and the wind turned toward the land.   We picked a route partially through islands, moving through long Canada forests.  The land is hilly, the occasional small farms on the shore, very similar to the terrain of Sweden.  Although we departed during a quiet time, the Atlantic once again showed its stormy mood, forcing almost all passengers to bed.  As we neared Halifax, a plane patrolled overhead, a war ship approached us.  A pilot boat came and took us to an enormous immigration house.   In the center of the building was written in large letters "Welcome Home to Canada".  Does this apply to us as well, arriving without permission and homeless refugees?   

They knew of our arrival.  Already from Sydney they had phoned Ottawa, and that's where the order to go to Halifax came.  We know of this, since we received a bill for the phone call.  Also we paid for the overtime of the immigration official while he was onboard the ship.  We are responsible for the cost of bringing our luggage to the camp.   This is no longer the generous Sweden who gives and assists.  This should be taken into consideration.

We are on the covers of newspapers with large pictures, interest in our future is warm and kind.   One hour after arriving in the harbour, we were told to leave the ship.    We filled immigration papers, women and children were given sweets, every man got a pack of cigarettes and tobacco - and onto the bus.

The passengers were split into two.  Families with children and those without in another building. The latter in large and open former veteran hospital rooms.   Most of the rooms have one to four beds, often with their own washroom and toilet. There is a guard at the door and exiting is not permitted.   We hear that more freedoms will be granted after a doctor's examination and political screening has been completed.  

The food is phenomenal.  The first evening we had bullion, a roast with vegetables, pudding and coffee.   Of course, on the table was also butter and bread.   It is important to note the latter, which in Canada is very white. The wheat from this country is considered to be one of the best world-wide.   Perhaps it tastes so good because I remember the stale bread onboard the ship.  For breakfast there were two eggs, corn flakes with milk and ice, or bread and coffee.   Lunch was also abundant. Undoubtedly, this was very good for the passengers, since the seasickness had caused many men to loose their bellies and many women to undergo unwanted diets.

We must work committees.  A choir, a musician's group and a dance group have begun activities.   It it understandable that language courses are also beginning.  We will scarcely be freed before two months.  The spirits are generally good and everyone finds that despite life onboard being very cramped, the Walnut was nevertheless a fine ship!"

Pier 21 and the Little Estonian Ship of Freedom

Article appearing in Estonian Life, English-language supplement to the  Estonian weekly "Eesti Elu" -- Friday, June 25, 2004 by Ants Tammemägi
Copyright © Eesti Elu. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Eesti Elu newspaper. 

Read text at original source.

There are many reasons to visit Halifax.  Dominated by a stone fortress that sits high astride a hill, it is a maritime city with a bustling harbour, elegant seafood restaurants, a rich history, and rugged coastal beauty.

The best reason, however, is on a dock at the south end of the downtown waterfront in an unassuming large brick warehouse.  Called Pier 21, it is a place that has shaped our country and about 20% of Canadians have a direct link to this place.  Nowhere will you gain a better perspective of the cultural mosaic that is such a vital and vibrant characteristic of Canada.

Today, gigantic cruise ships dock here, and disembark thousands of smiling tourists to the welcoming swirl of kilts and bagpipes.  But from 1928 to 1971 this was the gateway to Canada, where over a million immigrants landed seeking a better life and freedom.

In 1999, Pier 21 was opened as a National Historic Site with award-winning displays recreating the experience of newly landed immigrants. There are many heart-rending stories and the short film. Oceans of Hope, leaves hardly a dry eye in the theatre as it shows emotional vignettes of immigrants arriving at Pier 21, and the painful experiences of young Canadian soldiers who went and came from this dock in the thousands during the war.

Pier 21 is particularly poignant for Estonians.  In the years after World War II the Soviet Union, claiming that Estonians and other Balts were Soviet citizens, placed strong pressure on Sweden and Finland to deport them.   When Sweden capitulated and sent 167 refugees back to Russia, many Estonians, my parents included, sought safety in Canada.

As I wandered amongst the displays, I could picture my mother and father here in 1950 all their possessions in a clutch of suitcases, not speaking English, and with me (age five) and my one-year old brother in tow.  An interactive computer display yielded information on the ship, Samaria, on which we sailed in third class.  The resource centre provided more information and application forms to release the details of our arrival from archives.

One display, in particular, captures the desperation and fear at that time.   It tells the story of a small ship, the Walnut, which carried 347 passengers, mostly Estonians, including 70 children, from Gothenburg, Sweden, across a stormy Atlantic to Pier 21.  The Walnut was purchased by the passengers and, probably in fear of Soviet reprisal, was registered in Panama and flew the blue and white Honduran flag.  For safety reasons, Swedish authorities allowed only 298 people aboard.  The remaining 49 people skirted the problem by hiding below decks.

The voyage lasted 26 days, and must have been sheer misery.  The Walnut, a wartime minesweeper, was not designed for passengers and was badly overcrowded with the passengers living in makeshift "mail slots".  As the captain later reported, few passengers ate well or regularly.  And those with food likely did not keep it down long, for the North Atlantic in December is a treacherous place, and two storms blew the tiny Walnut far off course, tossing it about like a matchstick.

The problems did not end when the ship finally reached Halifax on December 13, 1948, for the arrival was illegal and the passengers, none of whom had valid visas, were placed in detention.  But the news media and the local population championed these brave refugees and they were soon allowed entry.  That Christmas season was joyous indeed for these new Canadians, who demonstrated their national talent by forming a choir and singing at the Halifax Lutheran church.  "DPs make merry at New Year," read a headline in the Halifax Mail.

Now those refugees and their children and grandchildren are spread all across Canada, and the Walnut is but a distant memory.

Leaving, I looked back at the big brick warehouse and goose bumps formed on my skin and a small tear welled in the corner of my eye.   After many decades, a window had unexpectedly opened and cast a beam of light on my personal past and on my national heritage.  I was pleased that these memories will be preserved and showcased here on this Halifax wharf.

Learn More about Pier 21

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21  
Watch on YouTube  (2:29 min)

Pier 21 in Halifax - Nova Scotia, Canada
Watch on YouTube (2:08 min)

The National Museum of Immigration - Pier 21, is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It operated as an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed from 1928 to 1971, and is Canada's last remaining ocean immigration shed.   Join volunteer guide George Zwaagstra, as he tours the museum and shares his experiences around immigrating to Canada.  

Images courtesy of Pier 21 Media Kit

The Walnut Story at Pier 21

Pier 21 Museum commemorates the Canadian immigration experience by sharing the stories of a multitude of immigrants arriving at Canada’s doorstep.  Through Pier 21, a visitor has access to thousands of immigration stories, oral history interviews, donated books and files, and thousands of archived images and documents.

Passengers of the S.S. Walnut stepped through these doors now known as the “Gateway to Canada” on December 13th, 1948.   A large banner read "Welcome to Canada".  Since the Walnut is one of the smallest ships to arrive at the Pier, her voyage is woven into multiple displays at the museum.  When visiting, be sure to look for displays including the Walnut ship.  Watch the videos - some passengers may recognize themselves.   

Jaan (John) Soosaar read an article in the English-language supplement of the Estonian weekly "Eesti Elu" entitled "Pier 21 and the Little Estonian Ship of Freedom" and made the following comment about how the Walnut museum display was conceived.  (Note, he is referring to the original display.)

"The article on the Walnut is interesting and I can shed some light on how the display was conceived.  I was working as a producer for CBC Newsworld when a friend got the contract to prepare a documentary on Pier 21.  In her research she discovered the story of the Walnut and an Estonian man who sailed to Canada aboard the ship.  He kept a detailed diary of his voyage.  My friend got [the] book and I translated sections of it.  The decision was made to do a separate display on the Walnut and I read the translation and did the English language commentary.  It's a popular display and I've had many positive comments on it.  My family came to canada in 1949, but through Quebec City instead of Halifax although we settled in Nova Scotia.  Pier 21 remains a popular attraction on the Halifax waterfront, particularly for the thousands who came through the terminal in the years after the war." 

Soosaar's comments are in response to an article entitled "Pier 21 and the Little Estonian Ship of Freedom" which appeared in the Estonian community newspaper Eesti Elu on June 25th, 2004.

Below:  Pier 21 displays that include the Walnut ship and passengers.  Photographs by Tiiu Roiser.

Note 1:   Captain Linde (right) in the hall gazing at Halifax harbour. This original image is being used at the backdrop for the Accommodate and Detention wall display. 

Note 2:   Signage in the Gateway Portal hallway:   “Between 1928 and 1971, almost one million immigrants entered Canada through these doors. This deck marked the end of their transatlantic journey and the beginning of their new lives in Canada. But first, they had to pass through a series of admission procedures.   After leaving the deck, the newcomers waited in the assembly hall for their interview with an immigration officer. Some also received medical care while others were detained. Immigrants finally had to pass through customs before leaving Pier 21.”

Note 3:   The gateway hall as it looks inside the museum in 2016.  Sitting on the bench is Kevin Chorowiec, the grandson of passengers Eduard and Koidula Roiser.

Note 4:   This display cabinet holds a booklet made by the  Walnut passengers for immigration official H. Wade.  Inscribed and signed by all passengers, it was presented to him as a Christmas gift. 

Note 5:   A wall display entitled Accommodation and Detention - "Excitement, apprehension and fear were the constant companions of some newcomers.  Until you received an official 'Landed Immigrant' stamp, you could still be denied.  Most immigrants had no problems, but some were held back until health issues were resolved or proof of sponsorship or employment was provided."  Note the background image for the display as well as many images of Walnut passengers.  Walnut passengers Manfred Kalm and Manivald Sein are featured in the image at the right sitting on the bed. Nelly Hubel can be seen in the food serving line.

Note 6:   Another Walnut-related display is entitled "What would you do?"  Visitors are placed in charge of the fate of a group of refugees that have come to Canada to claim asylum. The interactive display gives background information in the form of newspaper articles and asks visitors to decide if you would let them in. Walnut passengers Asta Piil and Hilja Kuutma are featured.

Above:  Thank you booklet presented to immigration officer H. Wade in 1948.

Discover More at Pier 21

Be sure to visit Pier 21 Museum and enjoy the Walnut displays amongst so many others.  Visit the museum, café or gift shop. 

Pier 21 also encompasses the Scotiabank Research Centre which includes information concerning migration, nautical history, waves of immigration, various ethnic groups and genealogy.  The research centre collects books, WWII stories, photographs, documents and ship memorabilia.   It currently has over 2000 stories, 600 oral histories, 1000 donated books, 300 films and thousands of images and scans of WWII documents. 

The research team offers reference services to visitors via e-mail, telephone or post. If anyone has material to donate, please contact the museum. 

We sincerely thank both the Pier 21 Museum and Ms. Carrie-Ann Smith for giving us a guided tour of the museum and their kind support of this website! 

If you'd like to delve deeper, visit the following Pier 21 resources:

Learn more about the immigration process for Walnut passengers.