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Pier 21 and Canada’s War Brides

Departures and ArrivalsRMS Aquitania, Canadian Museum at Pier 21 / Aquitania, musée canadien du Quai 21

Imagine that it is March 8th, 1945. The Second World War has been raging for six years, since 1939.  A 29 year-old woman and her 3 year-old daughter board the ship R.M.S. Aquitania bound for the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. On board, several hundred other women and children are traveling from Britain to Canada to escape the effects of war. 

After a near week-long passage across the frigid North Atlantic Ocean, the refugees disembark onto Canadian soil at Halifax's Pier 21.  Though the crossing was cloaked in secrecy, the passengers are aware that this is Canada's main entry point for immigrants, and as such, they will endure several hours of processing by Canadian immigration officials.  After presenting the authorities with a Canadian Travel Certificate, the document is stamped with the words "landed immigrant."  These brave women and children are past the first step in a process that will help define their new life in an unfamiliar country.

Geographic and Historic Context

What is Pier 21? It consists of three transit sheds (Piers 20, 21, and 22) forming part of the Passenger Landing Quay of the Halifax Ocean Terminals. Though these transit sheds are described as "piers," the structures don't extend into the harbour but are built on a seawall that parallels the shoreline.   

Construction began on these buildings in 1912-13, but was put on hold after the Halifax explosion in 1917.  Work resumed in 1926 on the two-storey Pier 21 structure and adjacent annex building, along with Piers 20 and 22, which were completed in 1928.  These structures housed the principal Canadian immigration reception and processing facility.  Though special passenger trains departed directly from here, there was also a nearby railway station (built ca. 1928-30) which was used as an additional waiting area for travellers.  Overall, from 1928-1971, this was the Canadian hub of immigrant arrivals.

Pier 21, c1947, PANS no.2725 / Quai 21, c. 1947, PANS no.2725During the Second World War, these facilities were transformed into Canada's major departure point for troops sailing to fight in Europe.  Pier 21 was an ideal military staging area for several reasons: it was close to the railway station and numerous existing Halifax military and dockyard facilities; the seawall could accommodate large troopships; and, Halifax was the closest safe deep-water port to Europe. Because of these factors, nearly 500,000 armed forces service personnel passed through Pier 21 facilities.  Pier 21 was also the focus of an effort by the Canadian Government to facilitate the safe passage of nearly 50,000 war brides and their 22,000 children (war bride statistics).

From Britain to Canada: One War Bride's Experience

In the fall of 1940, just outside London, England, when Trinidadian-born British citizen Rose Marie Potter married a Canadian armed forces engineer named Alexander Ironside, little did she know that she was part of a growing trend: 1,222 other British women married Canadian soldiers that year.  And because most Canadian troops were stationed in England for three years before they saw any active duty, there were many more marriages of this kind, a figure that swelled dramatically by 1945 (marriage statistics).   

In 1942, the Canadian government decided to provide free passage to Canada for dependents of Canadian military personnel, and it would help ensure that families were reunited after the war.  Each dependant was entitled to a single one-way passage from their current British home to a new one in Canada.  In 1944, Canada declared that all military dependents would be granted Canadian citizenship, allowing the Canadian Emigration Branch to make settlement arrangements with Canadian family members.  

While an army of soldiers was overseas, a different army of immigration workers and volunteers addressed the needs of war brides impacted by the conflict.  Numerous application forms had to be completed; medical exams were taken; registration and travel documents were drawn up.   When space on ships opened up, war brides and their children were transported to the ship, given the necessary documentation, and handed train tickets to a Canadian destination where their husband's family would be waiting to welcome them.  War Brides were placed on a travel priority list according to the status of their husbands from "discharged soldier" to "normal" (soldier still overseas). Canadian travel certificate / certificat de voyage

When Rose Marie Ironside learned in late 1944 that her husband would be sent to Belgium, she applied to go to Canada.   At the High Commissioner's office in London, the Canadian government issued her a travel certificate on December 21, 1944. Like a passport, it provided basic travel details. 

While awaiting word of her departure, the Canadian Wives Bureau in London sent Rose a 40 page pamphlet entitled "Welcome to War Brides" with information on practical issues:  immigration procedures, how to apply for social assistance, and details on Canadian cultural customs.  

The British Foreign Office validated Rose's travel certificate on December 29 and 30, 1944.  Another stamp indicated that an exit permit allowed for departure anytime up to March 29, 1945.  Rose wasn't told about the journey's details until two days before the departure.  On March 6th, she and her daughter travelled from London on a non-stop train to Greenock, Scotland, arriving on March 7th.  Another stamp by British immigration officials indicates that embarkation occurred on March 8, 1945, at the Port of Clyde, Scotland.  As with most official plans during wartime, the trip was made in secret, because German U-boats patrolled the North Atlantic Ocean waiting to torpedo un-protected passenger ships.  So when Rose's daughter said at one stage of the journey "We're going to Canny!" she was quickly told to be quiet. 

On board the R.M.S Aquitania, travellers were comforted by Canadian Red Cross Escort Officers.   Rose and her daughter were among the 7,972 women and 3,705 children who travelled to Canada in 1945.  In 1946, the combined figure was higher: 31,000 made the trip, a staggering 71% of the total for immigration to Canada that year!

Pier 21 Site Facilities, March 1945

Upon their arrival to Halifax, war brides entered Pier 21, and then proceeded to the Immigration Annex Building. Situated parallel to Pier 21 and separated from it by railway tracks and accessed by two overhead walkways, the Immigration Annex was a one-storey building resembling a medium-sized train station. It housed various immigration, transportation and social services.  While waiting to be processed by Canadian Immigration officials, the refugee arrivals waited on long wooden benches. 

Additional entry procedures sped up processing.  Halifax's Embarkation Transit Unit Movement Control, composed mainly of Red Cross workers, helped war brides find special trains scheduled to transport them to other parts of Canada, and notified Canadian families to ensure that they would be waiting for the new arrivals. 

Rose and her daughter waited here an entire day before boarding a train bound for Toronto.  Seventeen hours later, on March 18th, 1945, they arrived with other war brides at Toronto's Union Station where they were greeted by family members and the media.  Rose's husband arrived in Toronto in June 1945, and life in Canada truly began for the reunited family.

Pier 21 Today

Pier 21, 2010, Jenny Rotten / Quai 21, 2010, Jenny RottenToday, Pier 21 is a National Historic Site.  Although immigrants no longer pass through its halls, thousands of new visitors now visit the site which was officially opened as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 on Feb. 7, 2011. Before this, the Pier 21 Society ran an active research facility here for over ten years.   Research historians do original research in addition to providing historical support for museum projects / exhibits as well as dealing with external requests for information. Research interests range from the history of the building to accounts of denial, detention and deportation, to stories of various ethno-cultural groups that came to Canada. 

The research collection is focused on living history, with approximately 700 oral histories (and counting), a few thousand written submissions, several thousand archival images, and a small collection of physical and archival artefacts.  For anyone who is interested in specific immigration histories check out the on-line "culture trunks" about the travel experiences of those from the Netherlands and Hungary.  

Dedicated to telling the remarkable stories of immigrants as they arrived in Canada during the 20th century, the new Pier 21 museum is an historic place that is well worth a virtual or in-the-flesh visit!