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Story and photos by Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

The faces stare back at me-old black and white photographs of men, women and children. A young man wears his cap set at a jaunty angle, but his eyes are apprehensive. A family huddles together as if for protection, the mother wearing a scarf, her overcoat neat, if shabby. A child clings to her skirts. In another shot, a teenager looks directly at the camera, her smile both tremulous and eager.

This is Pier 21 in Halifax, and these are refugees from war-torn Europe in the '30s and '40s, waiting in the Immigration shed for their papers to be processed. Many have endured a long, weary voyage packed into crowded steamships. They have left behind the familiar landmarks of their lives: their neighbourhoods, their traditions, friends and loved ones. It is a strange new world they are entering with no more than their valises in hand, metal trunks at their feet-and dreams for the future in their hearts.

Now, over half a century later, I stand in front of the doors, through which more than a million people took their first steps onto Canadian soil. For each one of them it was more than crossing a threshold, it was a huge leap of faith into the future. They came here from every part of Europe, drawn by Canada's promise of freedom from religious and ethnic persecution, and the chance to start life afresh.

I can't but wonder what became of them. Not just those 100,000 displaced persons and refugees but also the 3,000 evacuee children sent here during the war for safety from the London Blitz. And what of the 50,000 war brides who joined their Canadian spouses-some of them with children born of romantic, if fleeting relationships?

And I think of our servicemen who left from Pier 21, and of those who didn't come back through these doors. Pressing a button below a photo of uniformed men boarding a troopship, I listen to an army officer's comment: "As we steamed out of the harbour heading towards World War II Europe," he says, "I looked back at Pier 21 and wondered if I would ever see it again." He clears his throat and adds. "50,000 of us never returned. I was one of the lucky ones who did."

Our docent, Jennifer, who is leading our group answers my unspoken question about the brides whose one-way passages were paid by Canada during and after the war. "We had a joyous 60th Anniversary reunion for the War Brides on February 9th 2006," she says. "Some were widows, but many joined us along with their husbands and families."

There are other "then-and-now" tales too. We pause in front of a shot of a tow-headed lad, whose grandmother is pouring him a drink of water. Jennifer tells us that a greying middle-aged man living in Winnipeg, returned to Pier 21 a few years ago to identify his Russian grandmother and himself as that small boy caught by the camera's eye almost fifty years ago.

A woman in our group today smiles as she hears this. "I remember arriving here from Hungary in 1956," she says in accented English. "We were fleeing the Communists after the Revolution, but my sister and I were just little, and we didn't understand, so I was scared. My mother told me not to worry-that we were in a safe country now, where life would be beautiful." She pauses to dab the corner of her eye before adding. "And, of course...she was right."

This isn't unusual-Pier 21 still lives on in the minds and hearts of many immigrants who bring their children and grandchildren back with them to walk the corridors of memory and to relive those first moments of their arrival in Canada. Perhaps the most poignant of all was the tale of a Holocaust survivor, who in a quiet moment when he had the WWII deck to himself, knelt down and kissed the floor.

It brings a lump in my throat.

After 43 years Pier 21 finally closed its doors in 1971. Re-opening in 1999, it is Canada's only Immigration Museum, a repository of haunting photographs, memorabilia, and tales, both sorrowful and glad, told by new arrivals and their descendents-as well as the officers, nurses, doctors, volunteers, social workers and other staff who worked here all those many years ago.

Pier 21 is not just a place to visit. It is a profound and moving experience. Perhaps one that should be on every Canadian's list of "things to do". And, like me, whoever does so will never again take this country's blessings for granted.


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