Immigrant Voices: Diverse Reactions to the Transatlantic Voyage from Europe to Canada’s Shores

Introduction

From 1928 to 1971, Pier 21 was an active Canadian ocean immigration facility. Nearly one million individuals including immigrants, refugees, war brides, and evacuee children came through its halls before setting out across the country to begin their new lives in Canada. After their arrival in Halifax and in the years afterwards, many individuals have shared their immigration story with us. These stories are a significant component of the museum’s holdings. Here at the museum, our written story collection is one of our strongest assets. This collection includes first-hand accounts of what it was like to come to Canada including: travelling by ship, first impressions of Pier 21 and Halifax, and train travel across the country. Below, I share a few of these accounts to draw attention to our online collection.

Diverse Reactions to the Transatlantic Voyage to Canada

The experience of leaving Europe and crossing the Atlantic Ocean for North America garnered a multitude of diverse reactions from individuals and families who sought to resettle in Canada. For example, on February 14, 1948, Jewish war orphan Celina Lieberman arrived at Pier 21 aboard USAT General S.D. Sturgiss. In fleeing the devastation caused by five years of war in Europe, Lieberman remembered that “for those of us who had experienced so much during the war, going across the ocean was not such a big adventure, the big adventure had been our survival.” According to her, the transatlantic journey was a matter of necessity or “something we had to do.”[1] As a Latvian refugee, Ernests Kraulis notes that the ocean remained calm as he enjoyed the company of dolphins that accompanied his ship, MV Capry, in August 1948. Later during his journey, the weather changed leaving “waves as high as the roof of a two-storey building...” Kraulis also feared that the storm in the Atlantic would eventually “swallow our boat and everything in it.”[2]

Although some individuals believed the journey across the Atlantic Ocean was a positive experience, others viewed it differently.

Emilio Poggi and his family attempted to emigrate from Genoa, Italy where they resided. In a stroke of bad luck, the ship that was to take them to Canada, SS Andrea Doria, sank in the summer of 1956. As a result, the family was forced to depart from Naples aboard MS Saturnia. Poggi recounts that “the departure was one of the most horrid and disorganized experiences we have ever had to endure. It truly seemed as though they were embarking animals onto the ship and not passengers that had paid the full amount for their voyage.” Eventually, the Poggi family arrived at Pier 21 on Christmas Day in 1956.[3]

In its final year of operation as an ocean immigration shed, Pier 21 witnessed a decrease in the amount of newcomers arriving in Canada by way of ship. English immigrant Peter Matthews came to Canada on the last Atlantic voyage aboard SS Nieuw Amsterdam — a part of the Holland America Line. Matthews notes that the ship provided good service and his son in particular found the ship’s pool “was the bath to end all baths.”[4]

Although the transatlantic voyage for many immigrants and refugees varied, many of them remember their arrival as a positive encounter with Canadian immigration and customs officials and volunteer service agencies including the Salvation Army and the Sisters of Service. In the coming months, I hope to shed more light on the experiences of newcomers to Canada as they arrived at Pier 21 and then permanently settled across Canada.

Currently available on our website is part of our written story collection which includes stories from immigrants, refugees and Pier 21 Staff and Volunteers, Veterans, and War Brides.

Browse the online Story Collection at https://5104.sydneyplus.com/final/Portal/English.aspx?lang=en-CA. (Stories are available in the language in which they were submitted).

Stay tuned!


  1. Immigration Story of Celina Lieberman, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (hereafter CMI) Collection (S2012.176.1).
  2. Immigration Story of Ernests Kraulis, CMI Story Collection (S2012.160.1).
  3. Immigration Story of Emilio Poggi, CMI Story Collection (S2012.247.1).
  4. Immigration Story of Peter Matthews, CMI Story Collection (S2012.216.1).
Author(s)

Jan Raska, PhD

A man stands in front of floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Dr. Jan Raska is a historian with the Canadian Museum of Immigration. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Waterloo. He is curator of the museum’s past temporary exhibitions, Safe Haven: Canada and the 1956 Hungarian Refugees and 1968: Canada and the Prague Spring Refugees. He is the author of Czech Refugees in Cold War Canada: 1945-1989 (University of Manitoba Press, 2018) and co-author of Pier 21: A History (University of Ottawa Press, 2020).