Yes, I am an immigrant and a settler. My family adopted Canada and so did I. Did Canada adopt me?
Pier 21 sits on the lands of the Mi’qmak. At an awards ceremony on July 13, 2016, Governor-General David Johnston affirmed that Pier 21 represents opportunity, freedom, diversity, equality, and decency. One in five Canadians have ancestors whose Canadian journey included Pier 21 between 1928 to 1971.
I am one of those Ancestors.
Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia-December 28, 1957
We arrived on the Saturnia to the land of ice and snow.
Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia – July 13, 2016
I returned by car…it was confusing and emotional.
Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia- August 1, 2017
I returned by ship…it was bittersweet.
July 13, 2016
My two elder sisters had already visited Pier 21 and out of duty since I was in the area, I decided to visit the museum. My eldest sister Anna Maria visited it with her daughter in 2015 and she told me it was quite emotional for her. It is still emotional for her. Her experience made sense to me she was 18 when she emigrated from Italy to come to Canada. She left behind a fiancé and family to make the path for the rest of us to follow. She lived with an aunt for a year prior to beginning the paperwork for her 4 siblings and parents to come.
My second eldest sister Adriana visited Pier 21 as part of an anniversary gift from her children. She said it was “ really nice.” It was only later that she shared the challenges of the trip.
My first experience with Pier 21 was when my family arrived in 1957. I was the youngest at the age of 5. My brothers: Gino – 12 and Gianni -14 and my sister Adriana was 17. The only memories I have of the trip vary from unpleasant to pleasant, yet definitely not traumatic nor dramatic.
Then why upon my first return visit did I find myself fighting back tears when the customer service representative asked if I had any family connections to Pier 21?
“Yes, my family came through Pier 21” and then I realized, “Oh, my I came through Pier 21.” I knew that. However, it was as if it had just dawned on me.
Emotions began to flood again and I struggled inside to keep my composure. This did not make sense to me. I did not expect this reaction. What is this all about? He gives me a sticker to wear to let staff know that I am an “alumni”.
I meet with others for the guided tour. I find myself scanning pictures to see if there is anyone I know. Recognizing Italians is easy; we have our own distinct features and travel wear. As the guide noted that I was an alumnus, she ensured her talk included stories of Italian immigrants. Again, I notice how difficult it was for me to speak and yet, again I became teary-eyed.
I saw two bins of samples of what was confiscated by customs: the imitation prosciuttos and salami, that were made with much love and hope of being shared with family in Canada. They were replaced with the then-popular processed meat “Spam”.
Even though I understood the thinking of the time, I felt myself well up with anger knowing how precious that food was to them. Knowing that good food was replaced with the empty calorie white sliced bread and spam, made no sense to me, even though it was the law.
The tour guide shared that Italians called the Canadians “mangia cake” which translates to “cake eaters” because the Canadian bread tasted like cake. I wonder if she knew that Italians did not like Canadian bread and preferred their own? I wonder if she knew that the term “mangia cake” was not an endearment?
My anger made no sense, my tears made no sense, my emotions made no sense. I was only 5 with hardly any memories. I remember my trauma training. Trauma is in the body. My body remembers something. What does it remember?
I remember my trauma training. Trauma is in the body. My body remembers something. What does it remember? What would be my trauma?
Likely I absorbed the fear, the anxiety, the tension of my parents, my siblings and everyone around me. How could I feel safe and at ease if everyone around me was facing so much uncertainty, wondering even if this country would welcome us? Would we survive the cold, the ice and the snow? We were not dressed for these Canadian winters. Who would have thought it would have been so cold? My experience became surreal. One minute I was at Pier 21 in 2017 and then I was at Pier 21 in 1957. I had one foot in the past and one in the present.
My husband sees my distress and wants to know what’s wrong. There is nothing wrong even though I find it difficult to keep the tears in check. I read the stories of the Saturnia that I received at Scotia Bank’s Family Centre, and tears continue to slowly flow.
Back home, I watched the video that I purchased in the gift shop. There were stories of some the Saturnia passengers….tears flow again. I share the video with family and more family stories emerge. Stories that want to be told and yet are pushed away. I continued to stay in my body and not push any of the difficult somatic sensations away. Over time there were fewer tears.
August 1, 2017—I return to Pier 21. This time by ship—The Grandeur of the Seas. The morning we dock into Halifax, I find a table at the bow of the ship. I sit quietly and simply stay in my body, sensing and tracking all my body sensations. As the ship docks, the sign says Welcome to Halifax, One of the 7 Wonders of Canada. The windows looked like they had bars on them–a stark image.
If the scene is stark in 2017, what might have my parents and older siblings experienced in 1957? I stay in my body. I am teary. I feel hopeful. This time the experience is bittersweet.
Part 2 – What we left behind
On October 28, 2017, we will explore the relationship between settlers that have landed on Canadian shores since the days of the Vikings to the present, the Indigenous People, and the Soul of Canada. What does the Soul of Canada want from you? A special workshop with Diana Claire Douglas.
Learn more here.
Space is limited. If you are student or graduate of the Foundations course please follow the “learn more link” for special pricing.