Pier 21 Immigration Stories Essays

Tagged:halifax, the other door to america, where in canada, pietro corsi, guernica editions, pier 21

What: Halifax: The Other Door to America (Guernica Editions, 2012).

Who: Pietro Corsi was born in the region of Molise (Italy) in 1937. In the mid-50s he moved to Rome, where he worked as a translator while co-creating radio programs for RAI, the official Italian radio organization. He was visiting Canada in 1959, when he was offered a job by the Italian weekly newspaper “Il Cittadino Canadese”. During that time, he wrote his first work of fiction. He later changed venue, effectively pioneering Italian service standards in the cruise industry. Promoted to Operating Manager for Princess Cruises, of Love Boat fame, he moved to California in 1969. In 1992, he retired to resume his writing career. He has authored several books ranging from fiction to essays, cookbooks and training manuals for the cruise industry.

Where in Canada: 

“This is Canada? Have we left our land to come to these deserted, abandoned and snow-covered lands?” –Giovanni Bino, Italian immigrant, arriving 1958.

From 1928 to 1971, a combination of immigrants, war brides, British children escaping the war, and refugees totalled nearly 1,500,000: and each one passed through Halifax’s Pier 21, what author Pietro Corsi called “The Other Door to America.” In his book subtitled same (from Guernica Editions), Corsi details the trials and joys of this journey for so many immigrants who named Canada their new home, as well as the “door” they used to enter: that of Pier 21.

Pier 21 was built in 1928 as a replacement for Pier 2, and was specifically designed to handle an influx of new immigrants to Canada. The two-level building could accommodate new entrants (and the Customs interviews, health inspections, and rail travel that went with them) on the top floor. The cast of characters new immigrants would meet upon their arrival are detailed in Corsi’s book, and included official Port Chaplains, volunteer translators, and the Canadian Council of Immigration Women, who assisted women travelling alone with children.

The unloading of goods took place on the floor below. Arriving immigrants brought their most precious items from home: work tools, sewing machines, stoves, jewelry. One family even brought a dismantled fireplace from home, intended for rebuilding once settled in their new country. Customs officials frequently had to seize contraband items – usually food – from homesick newcomers – usually Italians. One boy waiting in line noticed the unsupervised pile of seized salamis and loaves of bread and made himself quite a sandwich!

Twenty years after its official closing, Pier 21 reopened its doors thanks to the efforts of the Pier 21 Society, a group that strove to raise public and political awareness about Canadian immigrant stories that began after their ships docked there. The site is now home to a museum celebrating Canadian immigration from every route and coast, whose mandate is to “explore the theme of immigration to Canada in order to enhance public understanding...the vital role immigration has played in the building of Canada and of the contributions of immigrants to Canada’s culture, economy and way of life.”

Pier 21, then and now.

* * *

If you’d like to learn more about the role Pier 21 played in accommodating immigrants and continues to play in educating all Canadians, check out Pietro Corsi’s book. Many thanks to Anna at Guernica for sharing the book with us – the black and white photos are from its pages.


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Like most children, growing up I did not appreciate the tremendous influence that my parents had on shaping my values and beliefs. As an adult currently working with immigrants to Canada, I now realize just how much my parents and their experiences have impacted me.

My mother was a young woman in her early twenties when she crossed the Atlantic alone, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, before taking the train to Montreal, and then Toronto. She was the youngest daughter of six children, and had never before this experience traveled away from her familiar neighborhood of Kalogonia (literally "the good corner") in Sparti, Greece. However, she was of a time when dowries were expected of families by grooms. Appreciating how hard her parents worked, she chose to leave home to alleviate this future obligation when she, one day, would marry. Having limited education, no English language, little money and few other family members abroad... I am often amazed when I consider the journey upon which she embarked. I often wish I could meet my mother at the age of 25 and discuss her fears, challenges and hopes at the time. But she survived, indeed succeeded, in many ways... with grace, determination and tremendous kindness, bringing to Canada a future husband, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews.

As a man in that era, my father had the opportunity to travel more than my mother before arriving in Canada; mandatory military duty at that time for all Greek men meant that he had seen many parts of the country, including snowy parts of Northern Greece (a prelude of things to come, perhaps). Born and raised in a small village in southern Greece, my father's entrepreneurial spirit shone through from a young age: He was the first young man in his village to buy a bicycle as a means of transportation, and to set up shop as a tailor in the next village. But he wanted more, beyond Greece, and when a friend he trusted told him his sister in Canada was "of age" for marriage... my father agreed to the engagement and subsequent travel across the Atlantic. He, too, arrived without much money, no English language and limited education, but a drive to succeed, a strong work ethic and solid family values. Even in the toughest of times, his humor and positive attitude pulled him forward. To this day, "don't worry, be happy" is one of his favorite English sayings!

Together my parents built a life as newcomers in a land they would come to greatly appreciate, one which they saw as opening up opportunities for them and their future family. Along the way, their experiences provided me many valuable "life lessons," including the following five:

Respect: Throughout their lives, my parents demonstrated a solid respect for all individuals, regardless of their background. They truly enjoyed people, with the result that their customers, neighbors, colleagues and employers from a wide cross-section of ethnicities, ages and income levels cherished them! Fundamentally, my parents also taught us to always respect ourselves and our families, which then made it easy to extend the same care and appreciation to others.

Language: Both of my parents struggled to learn English. They certainly found ways to cope, but on occasion my father would speak with regret that he had not more fully learned the language of his adopted country. There were experiences and opportunities he felt he had missed, as a result. From a young age, my parents helped me realize that the power of words, of language, cannot be underestimated for one to be a fully engaged citizen. Their struggles were my motivation to learn as much as possible, at all times.

Patience: Anybody knowing my father would agree that he likes to get things done immediately and would be surprised at my suggestion that I have learned patience from him! However, as a general philosophy, perhaps because of the era in which they were raised, perhaps because of the challenges they faced, both my parents appreciated that sometimes, some things... just take a little while. Waiting is okay; there is no need to rush through life, all the time. If something is meant to happen... it will. Born and raised in an agrarian society, they reminded me frequently that nature has its own timetable and cannot... and should not... be rushed.

Determination: My parents left their place of birth for an unknown country, with little information about what to expect. Each for their own reasons, was determined to make things work, despite challenges and roadblocks. They simply kept pushing through, not giving up in the face of adversity. As a student, whenever I neared the end of an essay or studies and felt I had no more energy or drive left, my father would offer encouragement by saying in Greek, "Τώρα που έφαγες τον γάιδαρο, θα αφήσεις την ουρά;" The literal (funny) question asked me how I planned to leave the tail -- when I had already finished off the rest of the donkey! But the essence, of course, was a reminder that since I had made it this far... I certainly had it in me to accomplish my ultimate goal!

Work and Play: This lesson is perhaps the most relevant and ties all other lessons together. My parents showed me what a strong work ethic meant. When they worked, they worked very hard. However, our home and life was also full of music, games and family activities. I still remember times after a full day at their store, my parents would close up shop late at night, get us into the car, and drive nearby for an ice cream... or further away to Niagara Falls to enjoy the evening lights on the water. They did not worry about "work-life balance"; they just incorporated both elements into their lives, when and as they could. Sometimes one area drew more of their attention, but eventually (with patience), the tide always seemed to turn the other way again.

Follow Gina Alexandris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GinaAlexandris

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