Marie Chapman no longer drives around Halifax in an SUV, looking for discarded furniture to use in the Pier 21 offices.

Chapman has just finished overseeing a five-year transformation that has seen the museum double in size and expand its scope.

“We got $25 million and that included money for this space,” she says, as we walk through the museum’s offices. “It’s the first time we haven’t had to dumpster dive for furniture. We all match!”

When it first opened its doors in 1999, the museum told the stories of immigrants who arrived in Canada through Pier 21 and troops who embarked from there during the Second World War (see page 21). In 2011, it relaunched as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and is now devoted to Canadian immigration more broadly.

The 48-year-old Chapman (“I’m a Centennial baby born in Ottawa!”) has been involved with the museum since 1996, three years before it opened, when she served as an advisor to the Pier 21 Society. At the time, Chapman, who holds a commerce degree from Mount Allison University, was working as a fundraiser for Dalhousie University. She joined the staff for two years in the late 1990s then returned to the museum in 2003, becoming chief operating officer in 2008. When Pier 21 became a national museum, she was named CEO.

Canada has six national museums, and only two—the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and Pier 21—are located outside the Ottawa region. Becoming federal meant big changes, not just to the size of the museum, but also to its infrastructure.

Pier21_MyHalifaxExperience-01 As we walk through the new 9,000-square-foot Canadian Immigration Hall, Chapman talks about the challenges of converting “a 1928 shed in a hurricane zone next to the ocean where air pressure can change quickly” into a climate-controlled space that can display artifacts of national significance. She pauses in front of a hockey stick used by Slovakian-born Chicago Blackhawks star Stan Mikita.

“Part of the mandate for the museum is to show the nation’s jewels and in order to be able to do that, and to borrow from other institutions, you have to have international museological standards. Here is Stan Mikita’s stick from his 500th goal. It’s from the Hockey Hall of Fame. From the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame we have this marvelous old curling rock. I mean, isn’t that stunning? And this cricket bat. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Chapman talks like this a lot. In the short time I spend with her, she uses the words fun, brilliant, amazing, and wonderful repeatedly. When I ask her if she can remember when she first fell in love with her job she replies, “One hundred per cent. I can tell you exactly when it happened.”

It was 1998 and the museum hadn’t opened yet. However, visitors would come and gather outside the door with their families, telling stories of when they came to Canada through Pier 21. Chapman used to come down to hear them.

“Usually there would be three generations and an older gentleman would tell the story and everyone around would kind of look at each other and afterwards someone would say, ‘He’s never spoken about this to us. Ever.’ And it was the space that just brought it all out again. It was visceral. I remember my feet feeling rooted in the space and thinking everyone needs to know this—everybody needs to hear what this place and this country means to these people. It’s become a place that means everything to me.”

Although she is proud of the role Canada has played in welcoming new immigrants, the museum doesn’t shy away from negatives. There are displays on religious riots, racism, and other dark moments in Canadian immigration history.

Pier21_MyHalifaxExperience-02“Our history is mixed and we really try hard to bring to bear all aspects of immigration to our country and show the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Chapman says.

Denise Davidson, a teacher at Atlantic Memorial-Terence Bay Elementary has brought Grade 4 to 6 classes to the museum each of the last four years.

“We talk about how and why an area gets settled, and we talk about immigration and different cultures and that one facility touches on all of that. This year we went and did their immigration simulation program, so the kids learned about what immigration to Canada looked like years and years ago, and how easily some people got through versus others. So it showed the students there was bias, which was new to them,” Davidson says.

In addition to telling stories of Canadian immigration, the museum also plays a role in integrating newcomers and helping them find work through its Welcome Home to Canada program (see page 20). Participants get a six-month paid work placement, skills training, English classes, and a “reverse job fair” in which the museum promotes job seekers to companies.

Librarian Jason Lee, 36, took part in Welcome Home to Canada in 2013. He immigrated in 2012, but was having trouble finding work in his field. Pier 21 gave him a job at its family history centre; he was also given a 10-week part-time placement at Dalhousie University. Today, Lee, who lives in Halifax with his wife and six-month-old son, is a supervisor at Dal’s Sexton Library.

“When I was at Pier 21 everyone was really warm to me, like family,” he says. “When I was in Korea, colleagues just did their jobs and didn’t talk too much, but at Pier 21 they treated me like part of their community. I really appreciate them and that’s why I went back to Pier 21 to volunteer the next year after my placement.”

Chapman seems particularly proud of the program’s success rate. Seven of its graduates are now full-time staff with the museum.

“We really try to walk the walk,” Chapman says. “Almost 25 per cent of our permanent workforce are immigrants.”

Now that the revamped museum has been open nearly a year, Chapman is looking at new challenges—including getting more Nova Scotians to visit. Only 16 per cent of last year’s visitors were from the province.

“People who came 10 years ago think they’ve seen Pier 21, but they haven’t seen the new Pier 21,” Chapman says. “And nationally our challenge is for people to feel this museum is a place they can go to for all things immigration. Not to be the experts, but to help them find the experts. We want to be the hub of that historical knowledge that can lead to contemporary decision-making. And we’re getting there. We’re actually getting there, which is exciting. But we’re just at the beginning. We’re still new.”

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Welcome Home to Canada Program

  • Origin of the name: A sign reading “Welcome Home to Canada” that used to hang on the harbour side of Pier 21.
  • Year the program started: 2004
  • Participants per six-month session: 10
  • Total number since project launched:169
  • Number of countries they’re from: 54
  • Success rate: 70 per cent of participants have stayed in Nova Scotia and found work in their fields or gone back to school.
  • Number of graduates who are now full-time Pier 21 staff: 7

Key Pier 21 Numbers

  • 368,000 troops embarked from Pier 21 during the Second World War.
  • Nearly a million immigrants arrived in Canada at Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971.
  • About one in five Canadians trace their roots to at least one of those immigrants.
Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience