Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada, by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc

During a graduate class discussion one semester, we got to talking about family histories and immigration to Canada.  My own family’s history in Canada can be traced back to a land-grant for service rendered during the Peninsular War (paternal) and to New France (maternal), so I’ve always just identified myself as Canadian, and I did the same for anyone else that didn’t speak with an accent or whose parents didn’t speak with an accent.  In listening to my fellow classmates however, I realized that this was an incredibly naïve world view – many of my friends were three or four generations removed from their own family’s immigration history, but still considered themselves to be British-Canadians, Italian-Canadians, or Baltic-Canadians.  Because my own family’s immigration history is so far in the past, I’ve never identified with a ‘mother-land,’ but for those who had grandparents who came across the Atlantic, that country of origin was very much a part of their daily-lives and personal truths.  

Now, for my birthday this year, my dad and aunt gave me a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  While there, I hit all the places you’d expect a historian to go to – the Citadel, the public gardens, the water-front with the Historic Properties, and Pier 21 (Canada’s national museum on immigration), which had been used for decades at the main landing point for passenger ships putting into Canada with immigrants from Europe.  I knew a little bit about the immigration process, but not a great deal, and I had never thought to connect it with my own family’s history (the boats we came over on were wooden sailing vessels, after all).  Realizing I had no concrete knowledge about this important part of Canada’s history, on my way out of the museum, I picked up the book Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada, by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc.

Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada tells three stories.  The first is of the history of Pier 21 itself, and it covers everything from the Pier’s opening, to the upkeep of the building, to who managed it.  The second story this book tells is of Canada’s immigration history, specifically the changing tides that Pier 21 witnessed – from Eastern-Europeans looking for a future on Canada’s parries, to the war-brides coming home following the war, to the urban-bound peoples of Europe following the war-years.  The final story this work tells is of the immigrants themselves; what they experienced on the ships, what they experienced at Pier 21, and what they experienced during their integration into Canada’s culture.  The interesting thing, however, is that these three stories are so closely weaved together that Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc don’t even try to tease them apart, but rather they weave them all together, and present them as a whole.

While Pier 21 tells these larger stories, it also tells a whole host of smaller, more personal stories.  The reader is introduced to individuals as well as larger groups, and this helps add an extra layer of truth and reality to this work; one might not be able to emphasize with the ‘passengers’ of the Scythia, but you can surely feel for Jacqueline and her mother, Doris Kendell Whalen, who were coming to Canada to meet up with Jacqueline’s father, who had never see his child, but was to be reunited with his family as part of the war-bride movement.  

What I also like about this book is the authors’ no-nonsense position on the St. Louis affair – this ship was turned away from Pier 21 in 1938, even though it was carrying more than 900 Jews; when it was forced to return to Europe, Canadian Immigration Officials were in effect signing the death-warrants of those aboard – they were being sent home to Nazi extermination policies.  It’s a dark and shameful part of Canada’s history, and Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc don’t hide from it, and in fact, they call out the Canadian Government for their decision. 

Another aspect of this work that I liked was the authors’ ability to straddle the academic and the popular writing style; while this book is clearly based on a wealth of research (both document- and interview-based), it is also accessible to non-academic readers who want to learn more about the importance of immigration to Canada and the impact of the Pier 21.  I devoured this book in one sitting, and found it to be both engaging and incredible informative.

So, final verdict?  If you can find it, read it.  It’s a wonderful testament to a crucial part of Canada’s history, and it’s an accessible and interesting read.  While I came to my own realization that Canada’s population history is more dynamic than I had though in the past, this book helped me in reinforcing my understanding of what new Canadians go through when the set out from their homes to come to a strange land.  I’m a firm believer in doing for yourself and working hard to succeed, and I have the utmost respect for those who embrace that mentality, and my visit to Pier 21, and reading Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc’s work highlighted for me that immigrants to Canada live that principal to the utmost.  Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada is an homage to past, present and future immigrants to Canada, and should be read by everyone.  

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