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Major Waves of Immigration through Pier 21: War Brides and Their Children

In May 2015, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened new exhibitions on the history of the Pier 21 National Historic Site of Canada and the history of immigration to Canada. This blog is based on research that informs those exhibits.

Bringing War Brides and Their Children to Canada

In 1941, Canada’s High Commissioner to London, Vincent Massey, recommended to officials within the Department of External Affairs that empty troop ships returning to Canada should also transport war brides and their children. Massey suggested that each adult passenger would pay fifteen dollars to provide for their own meals, while the Canadian government would charter the ships and pay for each traveller’s passage.

Six months later, the first Canadian servicemen discharged on medical grounds returned to Canada; they had married while serving in Britain, bringing this pressing issue to Canadian shores. The issue was put forth to the Immigration Branch who advised that “certain problems” would have to be overcome before war brides and their children could be permitted to enter Canada. The problems were divided into four points:

  1. Finding satisfactory accommodation upon their arrival.
  2. The necessity of adequate assistance should they arrive before their husbands.
  3. Possible marital discord, which would cause these dependents to become a public charge.
  4. Dependents who were physically, mentally, or morally unfit.[1]

Canadian Military Headquarters also weighed in by objecting to the free repatriation of the war brides and children on the grounds that there were “too many irresponsible marriages taking place” in the United Kingdom. Military officials did not want to weaken regulations which forced servicemen to acquire permission to marry and then be placed under review. On 6 January 1942, the War Committee of the federal Cabinet agreed that Ottawa “should provide single minimum cost transportation, ocean and rail, to Canada for the wives and children of the members of the Canadian Forces overseas, where such personnel had returned or were returning to Canada.”[2] The same provision would be made for widows and children of Canadian servicemen who died abroad. Initially, the Department of Mines and Resources’ Immigration Branch was responsible for bringing soldiers’ dependents to Canada. In August 1944, Order-in-Council P.C. 6422 placed responsibility for providing passage to Canada for all ‘soldiers’ dependents’ on the armed services. “Dependent” and “member of the forces” was also closely defined and limited passages to “those who married abroad whilst serving abroad.”[3]

In December 1944, the Canadian Army issued a directive regarding marriage in foreign lands: “marriage with a person of a different country, particularly by young soldiers, where there is a difference of religion, is open to obvious risks of future unhappiness.”[4] Commanding officers were instructed to refuse consent outright if they were “not satisfied that a reasonable basis for a happy marriage exist[ed] and in any event a four months’ waiting period will be imposed between the date of the granting of permission to marry and the date on which the marriage may be solemnized, unless there are circumstances [such as pregnancy] making the delay undesirable or unnecessary.” Marriages took place across the world including: British West Indies, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahamas, South America, Guyana (British Guiana), Chile, Central America, Dominican Republic, Newfoundland, Australia, South Africa, Russia, and China (Malay).[5] See Table 1 (Known Marriages and Births for Servicemen Married while Serving Outside Canada to 31 December 1946).

The Department of National Defence (DND) was aware that many marriages were not reported and that allowances for soldiers’ dependents were not requested. Therefore, the total number of marriages and childbirths were much higher. Officials hoped that these unions would eventually be reconciled with the Canadian military’s documentation and statistics. As of March 1946, military authorities were aware that 47,783 marriages and 21,950 childbirths had taken place between 1942 and 1946.

In the immediate years after the Second World Year, most Canadian servicemen returned home with their brides. Canadian officials identified 44,886 unions with British women, 1,886 with Dutch women, 649 with Belgian women.[6] The British war brides accounted for 93 percent of this wave of migration to Canada. Federal officials identified 21,950 children who were born after Canadian servicemen married women overseas. Approximately 97 percent of the children were born to British war brides. However, Immigration Branch statistics later indicated that between April 1942 and March 1948, 64,459 soldiers’ dependents consisting of 43,464 war brides and 20,995 children were brought to Canada.[7] In cooperation with the federal government, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway, and the Canadian Red Cross organized a disembarkation program with bureaus across Canada. After the final destination of each bride and child was listed, the information was sent to the Embarkation Transit Unit Movement Control in Halifax.[8]

The war brides arrived in Canada aboard 60 ships including the Aquitania, Mauretania, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Lady Rodney, Ile de France, and Pasteur from the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, and Newfoundland. During the program’s six years of operation, over 97 percent of the war brides and their children were destined for Pier 21 in Halifax. At Pier 21, the war brides and their children were first processed as immigrants, then met by service agencies including the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), the Canadian Red Cross, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). These volunteer groups were instrumental in answering the war brides’ questions, helping care for their children, making sure they had the right documentation, and ensuring they boarded “War Bride Trains” for their final destination.[9]

In January 1947, the last war bride transfer left for Canada aboard RMS Aquitania. From August 1944 to March 1948, DND moved 61,334 dependents at an average cost of $140.29 per adult passenger. This cost included transportation within the United Kingdom, ocean transportation and meals, train fares, berth and meals to destinations in Canada, as well as accommodations and hospitalization en route.[10]

The war brides and their children were considered of “very fine stock” and predominantly came from the smaller centres of the British Isles. The federal government considered the war brides and their children—in particular those of British origin—to be “far above average in health and mentality.”[11]

Table 1 – Known Marriages and Births for Servicemen Married while Serving Outside Canada to 31 December 1946[12]

Country of Origin Wives Children
Great Britain 44,886 21,358
Netherlands 1,886 428
Belgium 649 131
Newfoundland & Caribbean 190 0
France 100 15
Italy 26 10
Australia 24 2
Denmark 7 1
Germany 6 2
Malay 2 0
Norway 1 0
North Africa 1 0
South Africa 1 0
Greece 1 0
Algiers 1 0
Russia 1 0
India 1 0
Hungary 0 3
TOTAL: 47,783 21,950

Table 2 – Services in which Canadian Husbands Served[13]

Canadian Military Service Wives Children
Canadian Army 80% 85.5%
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 18% 13.1%
Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) 2% 1.4%
TOTAL: 100% 100%

Click each image to see the full size photo.

  1. Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Department of National Defence Fonds (hereafter DND), RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families of Canadian Officers and Service Personnel to Canada (hereafter “Return to Families”),” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” microfilm reel C-5220, n.d., 26.
  2. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 27.
  3. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1, “Return to Families,” memorandum from Colonel George H. Ellis, Director of Repatriation to Major-General B.W. Browne, Assistant National Commissioner, Canadian Red Cross, microfilm reel C-5220, 29 January 1947.
  4. Michiel Horn, “Canadian Soldiers and Dutch Women after the Second World War,” In Herman Ganzevoort, and Mark Boekelman, eds, Dutch Immigration to North America, 187-196 (Toronto: Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario, 1983), 193.
  5. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 32.
  6. Joyce Hibbert, The War Brides (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1978), 156; Horn, 192. See Table 1 on page 8.
  7. LAC, Department of Citizenship and Immigration Fonds, RG 26, volume 143, file 3-40-21 “Statistics: Ten Years of Post-War Immigration,” report, George E. Fincham, “A Statistical Survey of Immigration to Canada,” April 1952, 13. See Table 15.
  8. Ben Wicks, Promise You’ll Take Care of My Daughter: The Remarkable War Brides of World War II (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1992), 91.
  9. Canadian War Brides, “Immigration to Canada by War Brides and Their Children 1942-1948,” accessed on 6 February 2014, Table originally appeared in Melynda Jarratt, “The War Brides of New Brunswick” (M.A. Report, University of New Brunswick, 1995), 12; Alexa Thompson and Debi van de Wiel, Pier 21: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Gateway (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2002), 83. From 1941 to 1947, 187,449 immigrants entered Canada. Of this total, 64,446 or 34.3 percent were war brides and their dependents.
  10. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 30. Canadian War Brides, “Transportation Statistics,” accessed on 6 February 2014, As a Volunteer Aid Detachment, a number of Canadian Red Cross Escort Officers, representing every province, assisted the war brides and their children during this journey from Europe to Canada. Ten officers joined from Halifax: Jeane Doane, Pat Keen, Mrs. Postyn, May Feetham, Helen Black, Pippa Stevens, Mary Sellers, Mrs. Moorehouse, Mrs. O’Neil, and Mrs. Goodeve. Ten percent of the approximately 48,000 war brides returned to their old homeland within a year of arriving in Canada. For context, see Peggy O’Hara, From Romance to Reality: Stories of Canadian WWII War Bride (Cobalt: Highway Book Shop, 1985), 290.
  11. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 32. The term was used to depict an individual’s mental breakdown: acute and time-limited cases of stress, anxiety or disassociation.
  12. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1, “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 32. Table 1 does not include unclaimed war births.
  13. LAC, DND Fonds, RG 24, file HQS 8536-1 “Return to Families,” report “History of S.A.A.C. Office and Directorate of Repatriation, 1942-1947,” 34.