Historic Pier 21

by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian
(Updated January 28, 2022)

Pier 21 was built as one of four adjoining waterfront sheds, the key transit areas of Halifax’s South End Ocean Terminals. The overall development included the grain elevator system, hotel and rail station, rail car maintenance shed, the four waterfront sheds and an annex building for the government departments active at Pier 21.[1] The construction of the Ocean Terminals complex was a significant civil engineering project, costing millions of dollars and attracting high-profile visitors including the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Robert Borden.[2] Undertaken in 1915, just after the outbreak of the First World War, and completed in 1917, the development languished for almost a decade before the transit sheds were constructed. Temporary sheds permitted use of the piers, but only in 1925 did the Canadian National Railway engineers responsible for the project contact the Department of Immigration and Colonization to confirm plans for finishing the terminals.[3] The place of immigration facilities in the development of the Ocean Terminals was significant, and these aspects of construction were often used by the engineers at Canadian National Railways as a key part of their publicity regarding the impressive nature of the project.

This rhetorical emphasis aside, immigration officials were not granted the spaces they initially wanted to use in the development, nor were some of their subsequent ideas approved. They had sought the use of space in other sheds, or even another pier and building further south in the complex.[4] However, the final shape of the terminal structures did revolve around the passenger-handling structures: the top floor of shed 21 and the adjoining “Customs Examination and Waiting Room Building”, later simply called the “annex”. During the peak years of Pier 21’s operations, the immigration and customs departments enjoyed slightly more space in the annex building (55,000 square feet) than in the waterfront shed (50,000 square feet).[5]

Viewed from the air, a large troopship painted wartime grey docks at a series of low waterfront sheds, with trainyards and a second shed building behind. Tugboats assist the ship in docking. To the left of the image and in the background, are some of the grain and cargo structures for nearby piers.
HMT Queen Elizabeth docked at Pier 21, circa 1946
Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration Collection (DI2017.852.1)

The structure for Pier 21 was built as a cargo shed.[6] However, the conversion of the space for use by the immigration and customs services was quite thorough, including everything from an up-to-date operating room to strongrooms and catering facilities. An official from Cunard Steamships declared that “Halifax will have the finest immigration facilities of any port in the world” after reviewing the terminals, and a reporter described his introduction to Pier 21 as a “tour of revelation.”[7] The building was marked by processes and attitudes of the time, separating “British” immigrants from “foreigners” and prioritizing medical ahead of civil examination.[8] After its opening in 1928, almost one million immigrants arrived in Canada at Pier 21, entrenching the site in the lives and memories of Canadians.

Operations After Opening

On 8 March 1928, the immigration department and staff – along with persons in detention or awaiting deportation – moved into the new facility.[9] Although the first ship, Nieuw Amsterdam, landed only 51 immigrants at the new terminal, the opening of the new immigration site was front-page news in Halifax.[10] This occasion followed a gradual movement of equipment from Pier 2 to Pier 21 that had started in late January 1928.[11] Immigration operations required support from voluntary agencies and from the railways, and although their jostling for space created some minor conflicts for Halifax immigration officials to resolve, the disposition of space was complete in time for the move. American immigration officials also moved, taking up quarters in the adjoining office bay, and a few ships a month required their services.[12]

Architectural blueprint and floor plans of a building.
Shed 21 immigration quarters as opened in 1928, excluding assembly and medical inspection area. (Cropped extract from Halifax Port Authority #10882)

The opening of the site and the arrival of the first several thousand newcomers through the month of March, 1928, point to the broader context of Halifax’s Pier 21 in a changing transatlantic world. The newspapers of the day headlined improved commercial transatlantic radio telephone service.[13] Steamship service across the Atlantic, an established mechanism for trade and travel since the late nineteenth century, combined with aggressive private promotion of immigration through Canadian railway companies and their agents to elicit a small boom in continental European immigrants to Western Canada at the end of the 1920s, along with an influx of British immigrants to Eastern Canada.[14] Halifax’s Ocean Terminals, the transport hub of which the new immigration facility was part, were understood as part of a major effort to update and ready the port for significant traffic.[15] At the time of opening, the kinds of infrastructure that could develop and sustain networks around the Atlantic world were not only in place, but expanding and flourishing with renewed government and private interest across several domains.

However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 led to profound responses in Canadian immigration policy. In 1931, Canada’s curtailing of immigration culminated in order-in-council PC 695, which reduced immigrant admissibility to a narrow set of categories defined by origins, capital and profession.[16] The impact of these regulatory changes was to reduce the number of admissions during the 1930s to one-fifth of those in the prior decade.[17] The role of Pier 21 shifted significantly as immigration restrictions tightened and public attitudes hardened regarding the unemployment of immigrants. The landing of “pauper immigrants” had been a featured prohibition of Canadian immigration policy since the Immigration Act of 1869, but broad deportations of immigrants as public charges became a normal part of operations as various authorities within Canada tried to relieve the pressures of welfare and employment during the 1930s.[18] Bill Shaw, an immigration officer who joined the department in 1941 and later became District Admissions Supervisor, described the situation under these regulations simply, saying “[o]ur job was to keep people out.”[19]

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 lead to a further dip in immigration. However, this was a matter of increments: Canada welcomed an average of 12,750 immigrants per year during the Second World War, compared to an average of about 16,300 newcomers per year between 1931 and 1938.[20] Nevertheless, Pier 21’s immigration staff remained busy during the war, notably in dealing with foreign mariners who jumped ship or refused shipping assignments. Crews might be comprised of neutrals or sailors born in enemy territory, and so the work of officers in resolving the cases and of guards in maintaining detention for those refusing shipping assignments was complex. The sheer scale of work led an administrator to claim the Pier 21 office handled forty percent more files early in the war than in average peacetime years preceding the conflict.[21] Incoming military personnel also required the services of Canadian immigration officers, as did a humanitarian evacuation of children to Canada from the United Kingdom. Sometimes called the “Guest Children”, the movement was short-lived as after about four thousand children were transported to Canada on British public funds, two ships were torpedoed in the summer of 1940. Volendam was not seriously damaged, but City of Benares sank, taking with her almost eighty children.[22] The tragedy marked the end of public (but not private) child evacuations to Canada. Other European countries evacuated wealth and cultural treasures to Canada through Halifax’s Ocean Terminals for safekeeping, including hundreds of millions of dollars in gold bullion.[23]

Despite this variety, the bulk of wartime traffic at the facility was military: Pier 21 was used as a primary embarkation point for Canada’s service personnel headed for service in Europe during the Second World War.[24] As the Ocean Terminals were converted to wartime use, other presences crowded the area of shed 21 and the Annex Building, including medical staff, a band, and the co-ordinating personnel needed to move personnel on and off troopships.[25] At one point, a military unit was briefly barracked in the assembly area and some of the immigration accommodation quarters were occasionally used as a rest camp for port workers.[26] However, evidence from employees of the immigration department present during the war years suggests that major parts of the immigration quarters remained intact and consistent with pre-war operations until 1944.[27]

On 5 March 1944, a major fire swept through Pier 21, gutting the immigration quarters and causing an estimated $250,000 in damage. The Immigration Department temporarily relocated offices and detention quarters to another department facility at the Pickford and Black’s Wharf, but quickly moved back closer to home, taking up residence in the Annex Building and in temporary wooden sheds nearby while shed 21 was repaired.[28] Although Army personnel had immediately undertaken the task of clearing loose debris, the damage was profound: the National Harbours Board described the second storey of the shed as “almost entirely destroyed” and sought contracts for its complete demolition as the first step in repairs.[29] After some renewed debate among immigration authorities on the suitability of the waterfront shed for accommodation and detention, the facility was reconstructed with all the immigration services restored. Pier 21’s second storey immigration quarters reopened in December of 1946.[30]

The reconstruction of the site afforded immigration authorities an opportunity to substantially re-arrange the interior of Pier 21. Comparing plans and descriptions of the space in 1947 versus in 1928 reveals some interesting changes as well as significant continuity. The use of space and the route of movement for most immigrants and passengers passing through Pier 21 in the 1930s and the 1950s would have been comparable: the changes in the arrangement of the assembly area did not alter the basic path of most people disembarking from a ship.[31] The placement of the gangway, the assembly area, the medical and civil examination spaces and the use of the ramp to cross into the Annex Building for customs examination – all of these elements remained in approximately the same relationship to each other.

However, the changes to the immigration quarters proper were quite significant, and appear to reflect both operational and procedural influences on the construction. For example, the explicit split between “British” and “Foreign” medical wards and detention areas was removed from the plans. Gone, too, was the parity in detention space for men and women: immigration authorities built five detention areas of a similar size, setting aside only one for women. The other four lacked a gender designation but were intended for men. However, three smaller women’s detention rooms (bedroom-sized) were added, as was a strong room designated for women. After these renovations, there was room for a maximum of about 160 people in accommodation and 16 in detention. The recreation room was relocated to be closer to all the detention spaces, and it featured access to a second airing gallery added to the quarters after the fire.[32] The level of destruction meant that even rooms that would ordinarily be fairly fixed in a space, such as the commercial kitchen, could be moved to suit the redesigned interior. The adjustments and additions to this space dramatically reduced the office space available in the accommodation and detention area of the shed. The immigration department added new office space by reducing the length of the assembly area by about one hundred feet (leaving it about one hundred fifty feet long). People moved through the space in a similar way, but the assembly area was not quite the airy gallery it had been.

Architectural blueprint and floor plans of a building.
Shed 21 immigration quarters as reopened in 1946, excluding assembly and medical inspection area. (Cropped extract from Halifax Port Authority #15646)

The expansion in office space was a significant step for the immigration department in Halifax, and in 1953, that change permitted the relocation of the district offices to the quarters at Pier 21.[33] Along with that move came a renovation to the annex building.[34] The National Harbours Board built a two-storey addition to the south end of the structure, which increased the available floor space in the Annex by about two-thirds, from 33,000 square feet to 55,000 square feet.[35] A number of groups benefited from the new accommodations. When the facility opened in 1928, the religious organizations and other social services for immigrants were based in an open office area near the north end of the ground level of the Annex. After the 1953 addition was built, the agencies moved to the second storey, near the entrance into the Annex from the Ramp.[36] That area was built with a large central waiting room and services around the outside walls, including the social services as well as a money exchange, telegraph offices and railway ticketing. One key service group that relocated was the Red Cross, whose Seaport Nursery had also been towards the north end of the Annex.[37] After the renovations, the Nursery moved to a space directly at the bottom of the ramp from the immigration quarters to the Annex.[38]

This rearrangement was significant for the social services and for immigrants, and it reflects a changing understanding of the importance of reception for immigrants in the post-war period. Another change that speaks to this was the removal of caging from the facility in 1956. [39] However, the principal beneficiary of the expanded space was the customs department, whose baggage examination room on the ground floor at the south end of the building more than doubled in length to some 260 feet.[40] This expansion, a major improvement to the baggage-handling capacity of the facility, would have been complemented by a planned component of the 1953 renovations that was never built: a tunnel linking the baggage space on the ground floor of shed 21 with the baggage area in the Annex.[41]

Pier 21’s Peak Years and Denouement

The rebuild after the fire prepared the facility for its heaviest period of immigration traffic, pointed to in the historical site designation for Pier 21, which extended from 1946 through the renovation of 1953 and to the end of the decade. Through the 1950s, about 45,000 immigrants arrived at Pier 21 per year.[42] Even prior to a proper re-opening of the second storey immigration quarters, the opening migrations of the busy post-war period were arriving at the port of Halifax. For example, roughly two-thirds of the War Brides and other dependents of Canadian service personnel arriving in Canada after the Second World War traveled in 1946.[43] In 1946 and 1947, about four thousand veterans of service with Polish military forces were admitted through Pier 21.[44] Their success contributed to the government removing the ban on contract labour arrangements that had been in place prior to the Second World War. This mechanism became an important vehicle for many thousands of other people either directly displaced or motivated by the war to leave Europe and come to Canada.[45] The post-war influx of more than one hundred thousand refugees and displaced persons coincided with significant conventional immigration movements.[46] At Pier 21, the post-war period was in characterized by enormous numbers of immigrants from Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.[47]

Although the staff and volunteers remember the ships and passengers of this period strongly, Pier 21 as an operational facility did not alter in any structural way as a response to these boom years.[48] The changes of 1953 – renovations and the addition of the district office – fixed the shape of the overall facility until it closed in 1971. The only area of the site that underwent any notable changes after the mid-1950s was the medical clinic, which shifted and grew substantially from the original two examination offices of 1928 to a suite of more than twenty rooms - including a lab, a minor surgery and x-ray facilities – by 1971.[49] However, this was the only expanding aspect of Pier 21’s affairs. The rate of immigration by sea through Pier 21 was falling dramatically as the facility wound down: in 1968, for instance, only 12,000 ocean immigrants were processed at Pier 21.[50]

Black and white photo of ship docking at pier.
Anna Salen docks at Pier 21, post-Second World War.
Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Collection (DI2014.466.3)

Pier 21 After 1971

After the immigration department closed its operations on the second storey of shed 21, the space was taken over for use as the Nova Scotia Nautical Institute (NSNI).[51] The institute was the result of an integration of programs for education in Marine Engineering and Navigation that had been housed at vocational and technical colleges, most notably including the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology. The school expanded rapidly, until – by 1979 – they occupied the entire immigration space on the second floor of Shed 21 and the ticket and social service area in the Annex building. In 1987, the institute began a gradual move to a new facility in Port Hawkesbury and in 1991, the last of the mariners and their instructors left. NSNI was a tenant in Pier 21 for almost twenty years, during which time there could be as many as 350 students attending classes at once. After the Nautical Institute relocated, the space was used for several years by artists for studios. In 1998, a private community historical group, the Pier 21 Society, obtained a lease for the space from the Halifax Port Authority to construct a museum based on the heritage of the space, using a combination of private and public funds. The resulting interpretive centre opened in 1999. In 2011, the operations of the Pier 21 Society were taken over in turn by the newly-created Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, a federal Crown Corporation.[52]

  1. “Port Facilities to be Improved”, Halifax Herald, 18 November 1925. Reproduced in “Immigration Building at Halifax, Nova Scotia (map) (plans)”, Library and Archives Canada, RG 76 Volume 666 File C1594, (hereafter File C1594), Part 1. See also in File C1594, page four of an eight-page memorandum on the history of immigration accommodations in Halifax, prepared by F.C. Blair in April of 1929.
  2. Foley Bros. et al, “Ceremony of dedicating work by Sir Robert Borden”, 20 Oct 1915, Nova Scotia Archives 1986-490, F44.
  3. A.F. Stewart, Chief Engineer, Canadian National Railways Atlantic Region, to W.J. Egan, Deputy Minister, Department of Immigration and Colonization, Moncton, 31 October 1925, in File C1594, Part 1.
  4. A.L. Jolliffe, Commissioner of Immigration, to Egan, Ottawa, 4 May 1926, in File C1594, Part 1.
  5. National Harbours Board, “Ocean Terminals Facilities Leased by Canadian Immigration”, architectural drawing, 15 Nov 1954. Accessed through the internal holdings of the Halifax Port Authority (hereafter HPA), document number 18196.
  6. Note that all the transit sheds were not completed at the same time: construction of Shed 20 was tendered in January 1929. See A.G. Tapley, Chief Engineer Halifax Harbour Commissioners, to W. L. Barnstead, Immigration Agent, Halifax, 7 January 1929, in File C1594, Part 2.
  7. “Splendid Facilities for Development of Halifax as a Passenger Port”, Halifax Chronicle, 3 March 1928.
  8. “Best Immigration Facilities on the Continent Here”, Halifax Chronicle, 10 November 1927, reproduced in File C1594
  9. T.B. Willans to J.S. Fraser, telegram, 8 March 1928, File C1594, Part 2.
  10. “Examine First Liner at New South Docks”, Evening Mail (Halifax), 8 March 1928, 1.
  11. Barnstead to Fraser, Halifax, 20 January 1928, File C1594, Part 1.
  12. Norwood Akerlund, interview with Steven Schwinghamer, 8 July 2000, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Oral History Collection, 00.07.08NA.
  13. “First Commercial Call in New Trans-Atlantic Service Thru Today”, Evening Mail (Halifax), 9 March 1928, 1.
  14. Robert England (CNR), “Land Settlement in Northern Areas of Western Canada (1925-1935), The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1:4 (Nov 1935), 578-587.
  15. “Port Facilities to Be Improved”, Halifax Herald, 18 November 1925.
  16. Immigration Regulations, P.C. 1931-695, 21 March 1931, in Library and Archives Canada, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, Volume 1479
  17. Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, Immigration: Immigrant Arrivals in Canada, 1852 to 1977 (Table A350). http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-516-x/sectiona/A350-eng.csv
  18. Immigration Act, 1869, SC 1869, c 10 s 16; Barbara Roberts, Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada, 1900-1935 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988), 159-160.
  19. Bill Shaw as quoted in “Bill Shaw’s gate to the Promised Land”, MacLean’s Magazine, January 1970, 30.
  20. Statistics Canada, Historical Statistics of Canada, Immigration: Immigrant Arrivals in Canada, 1852 to 1977 (Table A350). (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-516-x/sectiona/A350-eng.csv)
  21. Fenton Crosman,“Recollections of An Immigration Officer: The Memoirs of Fenton Crosman, 1930-1968”, No. 2 in Perspectives on Canadian Immigration (Ottawa: CIHS, 1989), 128.
  22. Geoffrey Bilson, The Guest Children: The Story of British Child Evacuees Sent to Canada During World War II (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988), 58-60.
  23. See Alfred Draper, Operation Fish (Don Mills, Ontario: General Publishing, 1979); Gordon Swager, The Strange Odyssey of Poland’s National Treasures, 1939-1961 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2004); Statement of Dr. Stanislaw Swierz Zaleski, Ottawa, 20 November 1946. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25 Volume 2803 File 837-40.
  24. William Naftel, Halifax At War: Searchlights, Squadrons and Submarines, 1939-1945 (Halifax: Formac Publishing, 2008), 82-83.
  25. Naftel, Halifax At War, 84-86.
  26. Canada Employment and Immigration Commission, “The Pier 21 Story, Halifax: 1924-1971”, unpublished report, 17; “Fire-Gutted Pier Had Colorful History”, Halifax Mail, 6 March 1944, 1, 3, 13.
  27. Crosman, “Recollections”.
  28. “Fire-Gutted Pier Had Colorful History”, Halifax Mail, 6 March 1944, 1, 3, 13; Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc, Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada, (Halifax: Nimbus, 1988), 73.
  29. National Harbours Board, Minutes of Meeting, 1 May 1944.
  30. Mitic and LeBlanc, 73.
  31. Comparisons drawn between interior plans for Shed 21 prepared by the Canadian National Railways (1928), Halifax Harbour Commissioners (1934) and the National Harbours Board (1945), HPA #8489, 10882, 15646 and 15647.
  32. HPA #10882 and 15646.
  33. Crosman, “Recollections”, 190.
  34. National Harbours Board, “Alterations and Additions, Customs & Immigration Bldg”, architectural drawing No.13-IF-5, 7 Feb 1953, consulted in Halifax Port Authority digitized document #10979.
  35. HPA #10979; Canadian National Railways, “Halifax Ocean Terminals Customs Examination and Waiting Room Building”, 31 October 1928, Drawing 16434-3, as consulted from HPA #10912.
  36. Crudge, “Customs Examination & Waiting Room Building: General Plan, Elevations and Sections”, 31 October 1928, Drawing 16436-3, as consulted from Halifax Port Authority digitized document #10912; National Harbours Board, “Ocean Terminals Facilities Leased By Canadian Immigration”, 15 November 1954, Drawing 51103-110, as consulted from Halifax Port Authority digitized document #18196.
  37. Report quoted in J Biggar, Chief Commissioner, Canadian Red Cross, to JS Fraser, Division Commissioner, Dept. of Immigration, Toronto, 3 January 1928, in File C1594 Part 2.
  38. National Harbours Board, “Ocean Terminals Facilities Leased By Canadian Immigration”, 15 November 1954, Drawing 51103-110, as consulted from Halifax Port Authority digitized document #18196.
  39. Mitic and LeBlanc, “Pier 21”, 151-152.
  40. HPA #10912; Public Works of Canada, “Customs Annex – Pier 21 – Halifax, Nova Scotia”, 10 April 1956, as consulted from HPA #10998.
  41. Canadian National Railways, “Proposed Tunnel Between Shed 21 and Immigration Building at Halifax”, 10 September 1953, as consulted from Halifax Port Authority digitized document #10886.
  42. Mitic and LeBlanc, “Pier 21”, 131.
  43. Col. George Ellis, “History of the SAAG Office and the Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947”, unpublished report in "Transfer to Canada of Dependents of Members of the Armed Forces serving Overseas, Canadian Red Cross Society", Library and Archives Canada RG 24 File 8536-1-1, p. 30-31; 34.
  44. For details on this movement, see Immigration Branch, “Admission of 4000 former Polish soldiers for agricultural work in Canada”, Library and Archives Canada, RG 76 Vol 648 File A85451, Parts 1-3, and in particular for an outline of operations and mechanisms for the movement, HR Hare’s “Report of Activities of Canadian Polish Movement Unit”, Ottawa, 26 November 1946, in Part 2.
  45. Ninette Kelly and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 334-335.
  46. Canada Employment and Immigration Commission, “The Pier 21 Story: Halifax, 1924-1971”, internally published report, 26.
  47. Dominion Bureau of Statistics, “Canada Year Book” 1950, 1952-53, 1955
  48. Alison Trapnell interviewed by James Morrison, 16 April 1998, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Oral History Collection 98.04.16AT, 00:14:20ff; Dauphinee, Day and LaRue interview, 00:50:13ff.
  49. Public Works, “Immigration, Pier 21 – Halifax, NS”, 14 February 1969, Drawing 1, as consulted from HPA #10899.
  50. Mitic and LeBlanc, “Pier 21”, 162.
  51. Tom Kearsey, former principal of NS Nautical Institute, correspondence with Steven Schwinghamer, 22 June 2010; Tom Kearsey, interviewed by Steven Schwinghamer, 22 June 2010, in Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Oral History Collection, 10.06.22MATK.
  52. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Annual Report 2010-2011, accessed via /about/corporate-reports on 20 February 2014.