Building Canada

By Liz Campbell

“There were ….television sets around the room. Suddenly we saw immigration officials jumping and dancing and screaming in the hall and hugging each other and looking at us staring at them like zombies. Now remember we had never seen snow. No experience of Canadian winter, no idea of what ice hockey is, or what is a puck. ….Of course later we found out that Canada had won the hockey series with Russia, and our Paul Henderson scored that famous goal to clinch the victory. And I thought to myself, what an awesome date to arrive into our new country and begin life’s new journey.”

– Shanta Saujani, refugee from Uganda, 1972

Immigrants have helped to shape Canada. Many, like my own parents, made a choice and left their home countries in search of a better life. Many others left because they were fleeing danger. Refugees have been part of Canadian immigration since the late 18th century, from the first Empire Loyalists escaping the American revolution to Scottish crofters forced from their Highland homes by the infamous Clearances. In the 19th century, Irish settlers escaping the potato famine came in search of a new home.

Slaves from south of the border sought refuge in Canada, often at great peril. And Chinese immigrants arrived, forming a large part of the workforce that drove the Canadian railroad across this land. Indeed, the need for labour to build this sprawling country resulted in advertising campaigns to promote immigration.

They responded in the thousands, with hope in their hearts. “Before I left the ship I took the 5 lire I had left in my pocket and placed it in a flower vase on the ship. I wanted to land in this country penniless and start from there.” By Liz Campbell Building Canada – Aldo Cescato, who arrived from Italy in 1953.

All this I learned at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which tells the story of the immigrants and refugees who have come here. Some stories are heart-warming, others heart-breaking. Some are funny, others make you cry. But here, the human face of Canada really comes to life.

The museum offers a unique glimpse into the joy of a new future, the sadness of leaving much behind, the fear of what they might find, often with humour.

“I did get up the nerve to actually walk around one block of the station only to be horrified to see cowboys with guns strapped to their sides, riding up and down the streets. Since I had never heard of the Calgary Stampede, I thought of taking the next train back to Germany, if I would only have had a ticket.” – Fred Juergen Eichhorst who arrived in 1956. Pier 21 also offers a really special service.

In the Scotiabank Family History Centre, staff will help you to find your family’s entry into Canada. They can tell you the ship, the people in the group, and the exact date. I discovered I had the date wrong for my own arrival in Canada! Sarah, a staff member, showed me the listing for my ship and my mother and me. We had sailed from England to join my father in this new country.

Sarah can tell interesting, quirky stories about some of the odd discoveries they have made when tracing family roots, including one whose ancestor who was a pardoned murderer! “It’s the best part of my job,” she grins. “I hear all the historical family gossip.”

But this museum doesn’t only paint a rosy picture of welcome. Canada has refused entry to refugees and immigrants as a result of racism and anti-Semitism. The Wheel of Conscience, a remarkable geared sculpture by Daniel Libeskind, standing in the entry hall, commemorates one such incident. In 1939, the M.S. St. Louis brought 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany but both Canada and the United States refused them entry. They were forced to return to Germany, to the Holocaust.

Earlier, in 1914, the Komagata Maru sailed from the Punjab into Vancouver harbour, but though they were British subjects, the Sikhs aboard were denied entry.

Despite such sad chapters, the fact remains that Canada was built by immigrants. Most Canadians have roots in other parts of the world and Pier 21 provides a glimpse into the first steps their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents might have taken.

Children love the interactive exhibits, which allow visitors to put their own messages on maps, indicating where they originated. One card linked to Southern Africa had these words: “Arrived in Canada 2001 with my wife and two adult daughters 50 years old. Started a new business. Now employ 25 people. Such a privilege and a land of opportunity.”

Scattered through the exhibits, five trunks have drawers below filled with the things each owner had packed to bring to their new country. Picking these up is a poignant reminder of how much must have been left behind. I watch a small child pick up a rag doll in Ariella›s trunk – once enough of a treasure to be included. And I laugh at the story above Angelina’s trunk. Her grandmother filled it with walnuts wherever there was space.

“So we knew we could never go back. Life and freedom had such a high price all of a sudden in our eyes….We had lost everything. But hope was so much bigger.” – Peter Penner who arrived from Ukraine in 1948