If you look at any map of North America, you’ll see that the continent tapers to the northeast. Nova Scotia is the last step before you need a vessel to travel further east. Now think of Nova Scotia as the narrow end of a funnel which expands west and southwest into the heart of North America. Once you do that, you can see immediately how and why this province became the doorstep into Canada and beyond.
In the days before passports and formal immigration, people coming from overseas travelled by boat and simply ‘arrived’, entering mostly through Halifax, Yarmouth or Sydney. The majority moved on, but enough stayed to make a difference.
Jewish people have been in Nova Scotia in small numbers since the earliest days. Nathan Levy and Samuel Hart, for example, were important merchants in early Halifax; their descendants later assimilated into the general population. By the 1920s, the community in Halifax was large enough to support a synagogue and resident rabbi.
Later immigrants, especially from eastern Europe, settled in Yarmouth and Sydney. The 1901 Census counted 449 Jewish people in the province. By 1921 this had quadrupled to 2,161, but the numbers have never been large. In recent years, the Glube, Pink and Gaum families have been prominent in the province’s professional and political life.
Between 1885 and 1915, hundreds of Lebanese -- then called ‘Syrians’ – settled in Nova Scotia, fleeing oppression and genocide in the Middle East. Family names such as Abbass, Laba, Joseph and Amyooney form what some now call the ‘old Lebanese,’ to differentiate them from the ‘new Lebanese’ who arrived after 1951, following relaxation of Canadian immigration regulations.
If ever there was an open door for new arrivals to Canada, it was at Pier 21 in Halifax. This facility was where all ocean liners docked upon arrival from overseas or the United States. Like Ellis Island in New York City, it was where all disembarking passengers proceeded through Canadian Customs and Immigration.
Pier 21 opened in 1928, closed in 1971, and processed 1.5 million immigrants coming to Canada -- including Home Children, 3,000 Guest Children evacuated from England in 1940, thousands of War Brides and their families after 1945, and nearly 200,000 post-war immigrants from eastern and central Europe.
Many left oppression and deprivation behind. Thousands, for example, fled Red Army tanks when the Soviets crushed Hungarian independence in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. While the majority of arrivals disembarked, cleared Immigration, and then walked across the street to board a train bound for somewhere else in Canada, thousands chose instead to remain and make new lives in this province.
One such group in the 1950s were Dutch farmers assisted by the Nova Scotia Land Settlement Board. Amazed at the extent of uncultivated land in the province, these immigrants revitalized abandoned or underutilized farms, particularly in Antigonish County, the Annapolis Valley, and along the Northumberland Strait. As commercial farmers with a strong work ethic, they are now proud Canadians and a positive influence in our multicultural province.
After 1961, dozens of professors, doctors and engineers from India and South Asia were attracted here by rapid expansion of the province’s universities. Arrivals during the 1970s included Cypriots, Vietnamese and East Asians from Uganda. More recently, refugees from eastern Europe and people of Muslim heritage have settled here in growing numbers.
Today there are nearly one hundred distinct ethnicities represented throughout Nova Scotia. A study of just the Halifax telephone directory reveals Italian, Greek, Chinese, Portuguese, Danish and Vietnamese family names, plus dozens more. In short, our multicultural mix grows ever richer.
There is no Statue of Liberty on George’s Island in Halifax Harbour, yet the words of Emma Lazarus could equally be applied here: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. .. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me…". Today’s Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21 celebrates all those who came to Nova Scotia in the last century. It is where they first glimpsed the land that would become their home, and it is a powerful place.