An Incomplete Portrait of Canada

Photographs capture time. They tell fragments of stories.

The Museum is full of photographs. In our permanent exhibitions, a huge floor-to-ceiling photograph from 1914 of the passengers of SS Komagata Maru looms over part of our museum- a haunting memory of faces turned away by the racist immigration policies of the era. In the section of the Museum devoted to the history of our building, Pier 21, there is another large photograph of a vast room of Dutch immigrants on long, full benches, waiting to make their way through medical and immigration interviews and board trains to destinations all over Canada.

One wall in a section of the museum is decorated with a huge print of an old black and white photograph with white people in a large waiting hall. They all look at the camera.
This picture of European immigrants welcomed into Canada stands in contrast to those who Canada excluded through official policy. (Dutch immigrants in the new Assembly Hall at the Canadian Railways Terminal, Halifax, NS. c 1930.)
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/Department of the Interior fonds/c036146
On a wall in the Museum, a large print of a black and white photo of around 30 men and one small boy in turbans aboard a ship. They look at the camera.
Passengers of Komagata Maru, c. May-July 1914. Gurdit Singh (front left) organized the voyage to test Canada’s exclusions of British subjects from India. Sikh men and boy on board the Komagata Maru.
Credit: Photo by Leonard Frank, courtesy Vancouver Public Library Accession Number: 6231.

At the same time, our two current temporary exhibitions centre on photography. The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence features over 100 iconic portraits of some of the 20th century’s most significant figures. A smaller temporary exhibition, SS Maasdam, which opens later this month, contains photographs and stories of five Dutch families who travelled to Canada on the same ship.

A father, mother, and two girls under 10, dressed in 1960's clothing, sit on the bottom bunk in a crowded ship cabin. It's tight but they are smiling.
Iris Tesseron, who created the temporary exhibition SS Maasdam, is shown as a child with her family in one of the ship’s cabins, on their way to Canada.
Credit: Tesseron Collection

The photographs and other artifacts on display are the tip of an iceberg.

Like most Museums, we have a large collection, most of which isn’t on display. Our collection includes nearly 18,000 photographs. These include images of ships arriving at Pier 21, images of newcomers to Canada sledding for the first time and images of ribbon cuttings at cultural centres. There are birthdays, canoe trips and weddings. Ramadan meals, Bar Mitzvahs, Chinese New Year celebrations. There are family reunions, feasts and funerals.

Color photo of Lyndon Horrace Hibbert camping in 2005. He is squatting next to a fire, cooking and wearing rain gear. Two people sit beside him and there is a person and tent in the background.
Lyndon Horrace Hibbert was born in the Bahamas to Jamaican parents and arrived in Canada as a child. Here he cooks over an open fire in one of Canada’s national parks.
Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2016.478.1]

The sum of these pictures is an immensely rich, complicated and necessarily incomplete portrait of a nation. Incomplete because there are still under-represented stories of immigrants from certain countries of origin. Incomplete because Canadian immigration predates photography. But also because immigration to Canada continues. And as it does, the picture of Canada changes and evolves.

The photographs are made more powerful by the stories that accompany them - who the people are and where they are on their life’s journey. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 continues to research and collect stories in all forms with the goal that all Canadian immigrants and their descendants are represented.