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Drab Pier 21 for many newcomers welcome change after unfamiliar sojourn on ship

First impressions of new country fondly remembered

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - The huge, drab shed at Pier 21 was not the most inviting sight for newcomers. Nor offered the wooden benches inside much comfort to weary travellers who just had filed off their immigrant ship. The “gateway to Canada” as it now is being billed, gave a rather poor impression of the country which people had chosen to meet their hopes and aspirations.

To some, the ‘unwelcoming’ appearance meant more doubts about this leap into the unknown. To others it did not matter, any place was an improvement over what they had experienced; an often “difficult” voyage on a pitching, cramped ship. Nearly all arrivals came to see Pier 21 as the very first station along the way to becoming Canadian. In recent years, a renovated Pier 21 as a tourist destination increasingly has eclipsed the unsightly structure many still vividly remember.

Now a first-class museum, Pier 21 finally has attained a stature which is representative of the country that immigrants thought - and hoped - lay behind this ‘gateway.’ Years of campaigning for heritage preservation, planning for new use and hard work at renovating has turned the structure into a tourist destination in which many happily will spend time in leisurely browsing around.

Gateway experiences vary

For a large number of people who attended the recent Dutch Immigration Commemoration at Pier 21, the event was the first opportunity for a return visit. Some of them had been back earlier when the facility was still abandoned.

Among postwar Dutch arrivals at Pier 21, warbride Maria Egbers Ouellette, now 80, was one of the early ones to pass through the ‘gateway’’ Her recent visit was the second one in as many years. A widow for many years, Ouellette last year joined a group of warbrides for a return to the facility. As her ship Lady Rodney approached Pier 21 on November 15, 1946, she noted the vast differences between Dutch and Canadian cityscape. The houses and the shed all were so unlike the brick buildings back home. Unable yet to carry on a conversation in English, she had very few people around her on the ship and at Pier 21 to share her impressions with.The immigration officials tried their best to make themselves understood but Ouellette who had married Sgt.Maj. John Ouelette just signed the papers they put in front of her. With her ‘landed card’ tucked away, she boarded a train to Bathurst, New Brunswick, where her husband and his family awaited her.

Commemoration very good thing

Dutch East Indies-born Emile Levyssohn on the other hand had been at Pier 21 before ever entertaining thoughts of emigrating. Serving in the lower belly of ships, he ‘sailed’ notably on the Groote Beer, the Kota Inten, the Sibajak and the Waterman and had several opportunities to explore the West Coast while his ship was being repaired at the Portland (OR)/Vancouver (WA) harbour. On his trips from Australia, Levyssohn several times had noticed disappointed immigrants returning to the Netherlands. When the Levyssohns decided to immigrate, Canada was their choice. Since he had a job waiting for him in Montreal in 1967, they bypassed Halifax. The Levyssohns nevertheless headed for Pier 21when they heard about the commemoration. “Something like this is also part of us.”

The first time Ellen Bouma Gallant saw Pier 21 she was in no mood to celebrate. Her parents in 1954 decided to start all over in Canada instead of elsewhere in the Netherlands when the city of Amersfoort needed the land her father used to temporarily keep cows for his cattle dealership. Then aged 14, Gallant resented losing her friends and did not want to come to Canada. By the time the Maasdam moored in Halifax on December 17, she was tired and an emotional wreck. Pier 21 still evokes unpleasant memories. When asked about her first impressions, the answer is swift. “Kids crying, tiredness.” Looking back, Gallant concludes that Canada has been good to her - she is the former publisher of two local newspapers and an operator of a special care home - and that the Commemoration at Pier 21 was a good thing indeed.

Arrival meant ‘goodbyes’

A visit to Pier 21 to Tilly G. Meyer is nothing short of a ‘homecoming’. Not quit five years old in June 1952 when she arrived from Ede with her father Gijs and mother Teunisje and sisters Maria, Trudy and Gerda, she remembers everyone being filled with excitement at seeing Halifax. The narrow gangplank looked none to inviting, “I was afraid I was going to fall off.” As a Nova Scotian she had the advantage of visiting Pier 21 ‘many times.’

That the welcome in a drab building still can be a pleasant experience is amply confirmed by Casey Van Staalduinen of Burlington, Ontario. He still remembers the hospitality of the Red Cross volunteers who on a Sunday morning in April 1948, after the newcomers had disembarked from the Kota Inten, treated them to coffee and donuts. The arrival at Pier 21 also meant a lot of farewells. “Everyone was hugging each other since we soon would depart to different locations,” reminisces Edmond Karel Van Hees of Port Hope, Ontario. He and other bachelors arrived on the Groote Beer on April 16, 1953. “After being together for over one week at the ship it was very emotional to say goodbye.”

Various routes and ships

The Van Werkhovens, then a recently married couple, were Canada-bound in November 1950. As happened to others, finding passage to Canada was not easy. There were not enough ships available, or to look at it another way, too many people wanted to leave at the same time. Some made quite a detour by boarding a ship in Scandinavia, others embarked on a ship in France or went with a freighter. The Van Werkhovens left Hoek van Holland on a ferry to England for passage on Cunard Line’s Ascania, which would leave from Liverpool. From there they headed for Halifax, and then by train to Campbell River, Vancouver Island. Although the Van Werkhovens did not attend the Dutch Immigration Commemoration, they had been back to Pier 21 in 1995.

Knowing English was a definite help, according to Dirk F. Van Laren. Coming off the Groote Beer in October 1953, he was greeted by a number of people, among them the Sisters of Service in their grey habits who offered assistance and showed people in the right direction. Since Van Laren was single and spoke English, he was processed quickly by Immigration and then cleared his trunk at Customs. Before leaving on the train for Toronto, he climbed the Halifax Citadel which gave a “magnificent view of the city and harbour.”

Welcoming thousands

Fellow immigrant Rimmer Tjalsma had a totally different and also broader view of the Pier 21 immigrant experience. Also single at the time, Tjalsma first was hired as fieldman for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) which meant he literally helped settle newly arrived families, also finding them housing and employment. Aware of the fact that his work - he was stationed in Whitby near Oshawa, Ontario - would be temporary, he jumped at the opportunity to become landing agent at Halifax for Holland America Lijn. In this capacity, Tjalsma for three years (1953-1955) welcomed many thousands of mostly Dutch immigrants at Pier 21 and stayed with HAL for eighteen years.

Working from the office of port agency Furness Withy, Tjalsma met a passenger ship every seven to ten days. On their trips to New York, HAL-passenger ships Veendam, Rijndam, and Maasdam usually dropped in at Halifax when they had Canada-bound people. Those ships also carried regular passengers from all over Europe.

Troop transport from the Indies

It was a different matter for the Groote Beer, a government ship staffed by HAL crews. The government-owned ships (the Waterman - manned by the Rotterdamsche Lloyd - and the Zuiderkruis - manned by Maatschappij Nederland - were the other two) transported immigrants as needed, but mostly to Canada and Australia, and civilian evacuees from the (former) Dutch East Indies to the Netherlands. These ships also had provided return passage for Dutch army units who had been in the Dutch East Indies. The Groote Beer, the Waterman and the Zuiderkruis often were destined for Quebec City and Montreal, although Halifax became an option when the seaway was impassable. All three ships were handled by HAL.

Although Tjalsma was stationed in Halifax, HAL also expected him to meet ships in Quebec schedule permitting. This sort of thing was not a very regular occurrence but when it did, it took him about a day by car to get to the St. Laurence Seaway, to a place called Rimouski. There he would join the river pilot and follow him up the rope ladder while the ship slowed down. The Quebec-bound ships usually were filled to capacity with Dutch immigrants. Those landing in Halifax varied significantly. The government ships also were different in this respect that they offered dormitory accommodation. The dormitories each had a capacity of 55 with no privacy. The HAL ships were typical passenger ships with individual cabins.

The former fieldman and landing agent cherishes his trip to Pier 21 where he had not been back since 1955. He used his Nova Scotia journey also to look up former colleague Herman Lam whom he in those early years often met while helping new arrivals. Lam who was related to the fieldman for the Christian Reformed Church John VanderVliet, took on the responsibilities for the CRC in Atlantic Canada. As fieldman he settled people in various areas, thus becoming instrumental in the rise of a number of congregations in the region.

Of all those then involved as fieldmen in the post-Pier 21 Dutch immigrant resettlement in the 1950s, as far as can be determined, Lam and Tjalsma are the only remaining begeleiders. While Lam eventually became a travel agent in Truro, Nova Scotia, Tjalsma stayed with HAL until joining Dutch travel organization Wereld-Contact. He then welcomed families of Dutch immigrants at the Toronto airport, helping them catch connecting flights, assisting others as a translator and reassuring anxious visitors. Also widely known as the host of an area Dutch radio program, Tjalsma retired from WereldContact when the older generation of Dutch visitors were overtaken by those who arrived as experienced tourists.