A Brief History of Pier 21, Canada’s Ellis Island

Pier 21 | Courtesy of Destination Halifax
Pier 21 | Courtesy of Destination Halifax
From 1928 to 1971, more than one million immigrants entered Canada through Pier 21 on Halifax’s waterfront. Today, one in five Canadians have a link to Pier 21, and it played an instrumental role in the building of the “nation of immigrants.”

Construction of the Pier began in 1912 but was put on hold after the Halifax Explosion in 1917. Work recommenced in 1926 and finished in 1928. It would go on to become the main hub for Canadian immigration.

Immigration was booming during Pier 21’s years, and sometimes as many as seven ships carrying immigrants arrived on the same day. However, the port did see its ups and downs. While immigration rates were initially high, restrictions were put in place during the Great Depression, which led to a serious drop in numbers. Immigration stopped almost entirely with the start of World War II, a time when the Pier became an embarking point for a total of nearly half a million soldiers heading overseas.

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During the war, almost 2,000 child evacuees arrived from the UK, and a few years later, the Pier saw the entry of thousands of war brides, British women who married Canadian soldiers during the war. The government brought these women and children over to Canada so that they could reunite with their loved ones after the war. The post-war era also saw the arrival of Displaced Persons and Holocaust survivors from all over Europe.

The peak of immigration occurred in the 1950s, triggering the building of a two-story addition. This boom did not last long though, and by the 1960s, numbers were dropping due to the rise in popularity of aircraft travel. The last major group of immigrants was a group of 100 Cuban refugees who arrived in 1970. The Pier officially closed its doors in 1971.

Pier 21 in 1952 Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

In 1997, Pier 21 was designated as a National Historic Site and has since been carefully restored and converted into a museum. To learn more about the fascinating history of Pier 21, visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration in downtown Halifax.