A mystery, archival film footage, an old suitcase, and a 75th anniversary

An old suitcase with the name Leegwater painted on it in large letters.
The Leegwater suitcase, donated to the Museum shortly before its opening 25 years ago.

Museum staff had noticed something strange in the Pier 21 exhibition- a discrepancy in dates.

In a display case, amongst a collection of luggage brought by people immigrating to Canada through the Halifax seaport, was an old suitcase with the name Leegwater painted in white. Opposite it, a black and white image of a man holding that very suitcase at Pier 21, the day of his arrival.

Or was it?

The mystery of the arrival date

The family in the picture, the Leegwaters, arrived at Pier 21 on April 9, of 1949. In fact, April 9, of this year marks the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Canada. But the image on the exhibition panel was dated 1952, three years after they’d arrived in the country. Was this just a typographical error?

The image in question is in fact a single frame from a National Film Board documentary called Canadian Notebook, released in 1952. The film focuses on newcomer families working in four corners of Canada and in four major industries: farming, mining, manufacturing, and forestry. The Leegwaters, who arrived from the Netherlands and settled in Nova Scotia, represent farming.

To solve the mystery, Museum curator Dan Conlin recently got in touch with Jacob Leegwater, a man now in his late 70’s who appears in the film as a child.

Restaging history

The filmmakers were looking for a Dutch farming family arriving at Pier 21 to feature. When they couldn’t find a family that spoke enough English fluently enough for the film, they located Jacob’s father, Dirk Leegwater, whose English was decent, and transported the family from their rural farm to Halifax to re-enact their arrival for the film. In fact, Jacob was just two in 1949, so doesn’t recall the arrival. His memories of the filming, three years later, are clearer.

“We were booked in a hotel on… Morris Street,” he recalls.

One aspect of the filming was especially memorable: “The funny part about it was when we met the officer at Pier 21, it was the same gentleman that stamped our immigration cards in 1949 when we landed. And he remembered Dad.”

An elderly man and woman stand on either side of a wall-mounted printed black and white photo of a man carrying a suitcase with the name Leegwater painted on it.
Jacob and his sister Gery in 2022 with the image of their father holding the suitcase, taken from the NFB film Canadian Notebook.

The film follows the family through the Pier 21 building and onto the train, but Jacob reveals that the train scene was filmed in Stewiacke, closer to the family’s home, where the NFB had arranged a special stop with CN rail. He says, “We got on one door of the train, sat down, looked out, got up and went out the other door.”

The family moved around for a few years working on farms in various communities before finally settling in the village of River John, where Jacob still lives.

A year of anniversaries

On April 9, 1999, 50 years after their arrival, the Leegwaters travelled to Pier 21, which was then in the process of being renovated in advance of reopening as a museum. That makes this year not only the 75th Anniversary of the Leegwaters’ arrival but also the 25th anniversary of the Museum’s opening.

As “alumni” of Pier 21, they were given a special tour. They brought their suitcases with them and donated them to the small but growing collection of artifacts.

Some years ago, Jacob was trying to find copies of the film. “I called the National Film Board and wondered if they had it on DVD. They said yes. So, I ordered three: one for me and one for each of my sisters.”

Of the Leegwater family that arrived in 1949, only Jacob and his sister Gery are still alive. They are looking forward to returning to the Museum to retrace their first steps in Canada on April 9 of this year.