Colonist car exhibit touching down at Pier 21 captures hardships endured by Canada’s early immigrants
When people think about the immigrants that arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, they think about the ships that carried them there, but for most that was just one step in their journey as they continued across the vast Canadian landscape by train to their final destinations.
To commemorate the experience of travelling on those trains and to honour Canada’s 150th anniversary, Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village, in conjunction with primary sponsor BMO Financial Group, is mounting a cross-Canada travelling exhibit that will tell the stories of some of the people who made that cross-Canada railway journey. The exhibit’s first stop outside of Calgary is the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax from Sept. 14 to Sept. 25.
“It was mostly inspired from the actual colonist car we have in our collection,” said Heritage Park Historical Village Interpretation Manager Susan Reckseidler. “It’s been part of Heritage Park for over 50 years, but once you start looking into the story of how it was used to transport thousands of immigrants across Canada, there are a lot of stories that come out of that. As a Canada 150 initiative, we wanted to look at ways of bringing those stories to life.”
Entitled Journey of a Lifetime, and presented by BMO Financial Group, the original idea for the tour was to transport the park’s vintage colonist car from coast to coast so Canadians could see how their ancestors travelled when they first came to this country.
“We couldn’t take a 112 year-old wooden train car across the country, but we wanted to share that story of the settlement of western Canada with all Canadians because it really is a Canadian story,” said Heritage Park Historical Village Communications Specialist Barb Munro. “That is why we created this tour that would go across Canada.”
The tour features a recreation of the colonist car in the park’s collection that was built for Canadian Pacific Railway in 1905, the same year Alberta joined Canada, and is one of only two that have survived of the more than 1,000 originally built that carried three million immigrants when they were in service. As many as 60 or 70 immigrants would have crammed into these railway cars for the week-long journey while sleeping on wooden benches, having only two shared toilets and a single stove to cook the food that they brought with them.
Travelling with the exhibit will be a theatre troupe performing a play written by Alberta playwright Winn Bray, focusing on a cross-section of new Canadians who settled the west. The play will also highlight the story of the Bank of Montreal’s role in the growth of western Canada.
“The exhibit and the play together give people a deeper layer of understanding of the role of the colonist car, but especially all the human stories that took place within those seats,” said Dan Conlin, curator at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. “The play has done a wonderful job of capturing the human drama, the hopes, the fears and the conflicts that took place in those packed cars.”
The exhibit and the play ran this summer at Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary where it was a huge hit.
“We had 6,000 people visit on Canada Day and we actually had to turn some of them away. People were lined up to get in and the venue was not huge. We have never had to turn people away from a performance before,” said Munro.
“When I watched the play, I was in the auditorium with adults and children and it held everybody’s attention. It was informative; it was engaging; it was entertaining. I think everyone really enjoyed it,” she said.
While the Museum has its own recreation of a Canadian National Railway colonist car from the 1920s, the travelling exhibit from Calgary gives visitors a chance to see an earlier model from rival Canadian Pacific and compare the differences.
Museum historian Steven Schwinghamer noted that Pier 21 only opened in 1928 and that the passengers who flowed through Halifax during the massive wave of immigration before the First World War would have passed through Pier 2, which no longer exists and was located in what is now a restricted area of a Canadian naval base. This exhibit focuses on that earlier time period.
The population boom of the late 19th and early 20th century was part of a strategy by the federal government to develop western Canada, fueled by the promise of free 160-acre plots of land. To improve the odds of success, Ottawa encouraged newcomers with farming skills to come, which is why so many Ukrainians, Romanians and Hungarians settled there.
“Most of the people who came to Pier 21 were not bound for the Atlantic region,” said Schwinghamer. “Most of them were heading out west or at least to Quebec or Ontario.”
“Some immigrants did come eventually come to the Atlantic, because after people finished their contracts, they began to move around the country,” he explained.
While the exhibit mostly focuses on the European immigrant experience, it also features the stories of Asian newcomers who made journeys via rail to Calgary from western ports, and the challenges Black settlers from the United States faced.
The exhibit also examines the impact these mass immigrations had on Canada’s original First Nations inhabitants.
“We talk about their perspective of when all of these European and eastern Canadians started coming to western Canada and how it affected them” said Munro.
Visitors will also be invited to record their own immigrant experiences or those of their ancestors who might have travelled in a colonist car. Munro says they selected some powerful stories from visitors when the exhibit was in Calgary that people in Halifax will see and be able to add to.
“We captured a wide range of immigration stories, including one dating back to 1792,” she said. “We had children; we had senior citizens; we had lots of millennials all of whom were really excited to be able to share their stories,”
After the show leaves Halifax, it will head to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, then the Waterloo Region Museum in Kitchener, the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, and the Visitors’ Centre at the Legislative Assembly in Edmonton before wrapping up its tour in mid-December at the Museum of Vancouver.
We think it’s timely because immigration is such a hot topic right now,” said Munro. “This is the story of the hopes and dreams and hardships of immigration, then and now. And it’s a tangible reminder of those who migrated across the vast landscapes of a newly connected country, and the challenges they faced in both getting here and settling the western frontier. This was the largest wave of immigration in Canada’s history and we hope it will be an eye-opening experience for visitors.
At Confederation, Canada’s population was a mere 3.4 million, but by 1900 it had jumped to 5.3 million. Just 18 years later, it had risen to 8.3 million, a rate of growth that seems mind-boggling today.
“Besides the First Nations people who were here for thousands of years, we all immigrated to this land at some point. Canada is a cultural mosaic and this exhibit and performance will represent the stories of Canada’s early immigrants, while allowing today’s Canadians to share their own stories.”