My second year of university, I told my mother I was going back East and landed at York University because the student residence at The University of Toronto was full. Such a great year of discovery! In that wonderful year of adventure, amidst the discovery of a myriad of things artistic, historical and political, I learned that: Mississauga was not actually a woman named Mrs. Sauga but a place; disrepect of The Sun was not the Vancouver Sun newspaper but a sensational rag that was the butt of many jokes in political science courses; and that I had not actually made it to Eastern Canada.
It took me until this summer to finally make it East. Red sand, plentiful CHEAP lobster, bountiful CHEAP mussels, humungous CHEAP scallops, iconic folk art and the friendliest people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. The Maritimes are shrouded in history. In the streets of downtown Charlottetown, actors strolled the streets in role of the “Fathers of Confederation” and the people who would have been their neighbours and colleagues. Maritimers are proud of their history and patient enough to take the time to tell you their story.
In 1869, Canada passed its first immigration Act and immigration offices were established in Halifax, Saint John, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. By 1881, Halifax was declared an official port of entry and Pier 2 was built to accommodate trade as well as the comings and goings of immigrants and servicemen and women. Halifax Harbour became the busiest port in Canada. After it was destroyed in the catastrophic Halifax explosion of 1917, it was eventually replaced in 1928 by Pier 21. From 1928 to 1971, more than a million newcomers were welcomed to Canada and close to 500,000 Canadian services personnel were sent off for active duty in World War II. Now Pier 21 has become a museum and the Canadian version of Ellis Island. The tour guides give you a haunting sense of the immigrant/ refugee experience as they entered Canada. My father had an old postcard of the Voldendam. He turned 12 years old en route to Canada and the captain had given him a tour of the bridge and let him inspect the engine room.
Until that point in time, I hadn’t really thought about my paternal grandmother’s experience of arriving from post war Germany with four children under 12 years of age. It opened up a plethora of questions that I wished I had asked her. She lived until 100 years old but that just wasn’t enough time for her story to unfold. I was delighted to discover the research room filled with enthusiastic staff ready to help access information about family history. Of course privacy laws limit access to information without consent but there is a lot of general information that can be accessed. I was able to choose the picture of the ship, add text and send a framed copy from Pier 21.
A trip to the bookstore allowed my to access stories and information about the immigrant experience. The girl at the cash register also provided a wealth of information. Initially I picked up Anne Renaud’s book, Pier 21: Stories from Near and Far, because it looked more appropriate for children. However this book includes photographs, medals, excerpts from historical documents and history notes that make it a great source for all ages. It has also opened up a conversation with my father about things that have previously not come up in conversation.
Many of the students in my school live the immigrant experience. They come from countries such as China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and India. For the students born here, they often have better English language proficiency than their parents or grandparents. It brings additional responsibilities and perhaps a sense that their families know less. Many do not know the stories of their parents and grandparents either. I am very much hoping to incorporate reading, writing, listening, speaking and opportunities to represent intergenerational understandings. It certainly opens up a new dimensions to relationships when we have the knowledge of their life experiences that have been instrumental in defining a person’s way of being.