Pier 21 today, as it was in years past, is a building. For visitors past and present, some find this site unmoving. They give little thought to what the walls and their surroundings have seen. For others, the site is precious and represents a new beginning in a country that they love. These individuals never forgot their first steps on Canadian ground. And I tend to agree with the latter, Pier 21 is much more than a building.
The story I’d like to share happened a long time ago but I will never forget it. It illustrates the significance of Pier 21 to the thousands of refugees and displaced people who arrived here during the 1940s and early 1950s, better than any of the histories that I have read or documentaries that I have seen.
Heather was one of our summer students. It was a quiet day in the exhibition and she saw a man sitting alone on one of the benches in the Rudolph Peter Bratty Exhibition Hall. She started talking with him and before long he was confiding in her about his experiences in the concentration camps and how every member of his family had been killed. He described scenarios almost impossible for the young student to imagine. Soon they were both crying and undoubtedly grateful to have the space to themselves.
After a long visit they said their goodbyes and Heather left the man to explore Pier 21 at his leisure. She kept an eye on him though, in case he needed anything or wanted to talk some more. When the man went out on the World War II Deck she peeked in on him just to make certain that he was alright. The man walked around silently for a few minutes, then paused, knelt down and kissed the floor.
This may seem like a simple gesture, but the symbolism continues to move me each and every time I recount this story. Do you remember your first steps in Canada? We would love to hear what Pier 21 means to you.