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Arriving at Halifax Before Pier 21

by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian

The origins of Canada’s refugee determination system can be traced back to 1922, when the League of Nations (a predecessor to the United Nations (UN)) established the Nansen Passport which provided refugees with an internationally recognized travel document. The passport served as a travel certificate establishing a refugee’s identity. Recognized by more than 50 countries and initially destined for use by over 1.5 million individuals displaced by the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Canadian officials hesitated to legitimize the travel certificate out of a fear that it was a “one-way document.” This was the case for a movement of orphans who had survived the Armenian Genocide and sought permanent resettlement in Canada. They were later resettled through an exemption to an order-in-council that had further restricted “Asiatic” immigration to Canada.[1] Despite international attempts to provide refugees and stateless persons with recognized travel documentation, the Canadian government maintained its sovereign right to deport persons belonging to any of the “prohibited classes” defined in the 1910 Immigration Act.

After the Second World War, Canadian military authorities helped to permanently resettle a unique movement of ‘preferred’ immigration to Canada: war brides and their children. They represent the single largest contiguous movement of migration to Canada, specifically through Pier 21. The war brides arrived in Canada at a time when the country’s doors remained largely closed to immigrants, due in part to the economic effects of the Great Depression.