Reflections on a Green Door I: New Beginnings

“I know this door”, the thought was almost overwhelming. Somehow I has been mentally catapulted back in time almost 47 years and my brain kept repeating: “I know this door. It belongs here, almost in this position, but not quite…” But, how does one ‘know’ a door?

I was standing, somewhat dumbstruck, in the lower level of Pier 21, the site of the Canadian Museum of Immigration and was going through a temporary interactive exhibit aimed at giving people a feeling for the relative ease or difficulty of immigrating to this country. Several normal looking doors were positioned in the space, each with part of a large maple leaf painted on a plain wooden surface. As one tried to walk through each door one found that some were easy to open, while others offered resistance. The ‘inside’ of each door had been decorated or modified to bring the visitor into the experience of an immigrant who might have been trying to use that door. As I went through one of the doors and turned, I felt somewhat disoriented and went through the internal dialog that started this story.

I had been going through the exhibit trying with some success to engage with the theme, but suddenly this wasn’t about a metaphorical door or another immigrant, this was about me and I hadn’t expected to be this engaged, but again, how could I ‘know’ this apparently (to me very memorable) door?

The door in question is unusual in several respects. First of all, it is obviously old, its construction appears to be somewhat haphazard and it is painted a rather odd shade of green. Not what I would consider institutional green (think of school rooms of the 1950-60 era, hospital rooms, etc.) but more the colour of marine paint, as if someone had part of a can of bottom paint left over after refurbishing a boat hull and decided to splash it on this door. The window in the upper third has the words “Customs and Excise” hand painted in black with yellow outlining. One can only wonder why the final letter of Customs is smaller and placed like a superscript—an oversight by the painter that had to be squeezed in? The lower part of the door has vertical slats inset into the body that somehow give a feeling of protecting the door against being kicked. Another distinctive, feature of the door (and one that was stuck in my mind after all these years) are three hasps—the sort of thing you’d use to lock a door with a padlock. The distinctive feature of these hasps is that there are three of them, one of which is set in what I’d consider a normal position, parallel to the floor, while the other two are positioned vertically. Again, one can only wonder, but I assume those two were there to hold vertical bars that might have provided extra protection against unauthorised entry. Finally, the door has the number 19 in the upper centre made of two enamelled metal tabs (think of the stick-on numbers you can put on your mailbox).

So, here is a green door, an obviously evocative green door but I still don’t know…OMG! I think this is the door that I went through here at Pier 21 in January of 1971 to have some paper work completed after my entry into Canada as a prospective immigrant. And, if memory serves, it had been located on this level of the building, only a few metres (well, it would have been feet in 1971) from where it stood in the exhibit.[1]

To explain further…I had entered Canada at the Port of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on January 3, 1971 with permission to do graduate studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Given my age (twenty four) and the fact that I was coming to a new country, a new school, a new job on campus, needing to find a place to live in a new city, etc., etc., I shouldn’t be surprised that some of the details are unclear. I do remember that there was a need to complete some paper work in a timely fashion and that it could only be done at Pier 21. After so many years, it is interesting to me that most of the details of my other activities in those first few weeks in Halifax are pretty foggy, but this one door really stands out. I also remember that entering Pier 21 through what I recall was a very large door suitable for trucks, the first thing I saw was the harbour since some, if not all of the cargo doors on the harbour side of the building were open. I remember the feel of the wind—that wind off the harbour in winter that seems to cut through almost any type of clothing—and wondering why (or where, or how) there was an office in a huge, empty, cold space. It was only in the latter part of 2017 when I learned the history of the Pier that I understood that I was standing in the cargo and luggage area of the Pier (or Shed as it was known).

You may be wondering why I’ve titled this story ‘New Beginnings’. As you’ve probably guessed, the door, while not part of my very first few hours in Canada, symbolises part of the process of becoming part of a different culture and national identity than that of my birth, and eventually a citizen of my country of choice. The other ‘New Beginning’ was that within a week of visiting the museum I began the process of asking to become a volunteer at Pier 21, a process that after a few months has resulted in me being allowed to give tours of the Pier 21 exhibit to English speaking visitors.

So, what was it about the green door, or about the museum that prompted my interest? The visit I mentioned above was my first, I’m embarrassed to say, given that I’ve lived most of my life within easy commuting distance to Halifax, I was acquainted with Ruth Goldbloom who had encouraged me to visit the site, and I had a personal interest in immigration. I can only ascribe it to that all too human syndrome of rarely visiting the places of interest on one’s door step, while spending time and money to visit attractions in far off places. What I found as my son and I spent most of the afternoon going through Pier 21 was that I was getting increasingly emotional about the space, and especially about the stories presented visually and in the recorded stories of others who had a connection to the site. It brought home to me that being an immigrant is to be, in some ways, always different from those born in a place. More importantly, it reminded me of how welcoming this country has been to me and to millions of others, how fortunate we are to be part of a community of people who still have a strong desire to help each other and to encourage others to join us in this peaceful and caring place. The museum also highlights the huge debt we all owe to indigenous peoples and how much we need to work with them to achieve the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Seeing the green door in the exhibit was the beginning of recollections about my experience as an immigrant to Canada which will be part of another chapter, once I have them more firmly in hand.

Smiling man stands next to a green door.
Bill Hart

  1. This recollection was confirmed by Steve Schwinghammer, one of the museum historians who placed the original door where the "Railside Room" is presently located.