On the waterfront

Some came clutching their family’s prized possessions, some came to escape war-ravaged Europe, others came for adventure — but all came with hope of freedom in a new land. More than a million immigrants seeking a new and better life took their first steps in Canada at Halifax’s Pier 21.

From 1928 to 1971, Pier 21 was Canada’s “front door” to over a million immigrants including wartime evacuees, displaced persons, refugees, war brides and their children. Of these million, 100,000 were displaced persons and refugees and 50,000 were war brides who came with their 22,000 children. Also, 494,000 Canadian soldiers and airmen boarded ships at Pier 21, bound for Europe during the war.

After 1971, Pier 21 was abandoned and left derelict on the Halifax waterfront. Almost 30 years later, however, it has been transformed into a fascinating testament to Canada’s immigration experience. Together with the captivating Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the lively Privateers Wharf, a casino and several modern hotels, Pier 21 has helped make the waterfront one the hottest tourist attractions in Halifax.

Now a national historic site, Pier 21 is once again drawing large crowds — ts time tourists. It’s estimated that as many as one in five families in Canada today can trace their families’ first steps in this country to Pier 21. Consequently, it has become a place to which many visitors have a natural bond.

The site is divided into several exhibit halls listing the names of passengers and ships as well as providing pictorial displays and other historic memorabilia. The exhibit’s theatre shows a 24-minute film that gives a unique and authentic glimpse into Canadian immigration history. Entitled Oceans of Hope, it depicts the “in-transit” experience of those who passed through Pier 21.

Pier 21 is located at 1055 Marginal Road, a 20-minute walk along the waterfront from the Historic Properties, directly behind the Westin Nova Scotian Hotel and the VIA Rail station. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors over 60 and $3 for children 6 to 16 years of age.

Just down the road is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, an entertaining and visual experience showing off Nova Scotia’s rich maritime heritage. The museum features an enthralling film on the 1917 Halifax explosion that flattened most of the city. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed and 12,000 others were damaged leaving 6,000 people without shelter. The museum also illustrates the role Canada’s navy played during the world wars. As well, it has many artifacts from the ill-fated Titanic.

Privateers Wharf, the centerpiece to Halifax’s Historic Properties, is the creation of Ben McCrea, one of Halifax’s foremost visionaries. In 1971, McCrea saved many waterfront warehouses — some dating back to the early 1800s — from the wrecking ball. Since then, the area has been converted into an exciting and delightful centre of upscale boutiques and restaurants — a gathering place for both Halifax residents and visitors. It’s also the docking spot for Nova Scotia’s Bluenose II, the replica of the famed Canadian sailing ship.

McCrea’s ability to revitalize these shabby but historic warehouses along the Halifax waterfront has earned him both praise and awards. In fact, the Maritime Museum and Pier 21 owe their existence to the success of Privateers Wharf.