By Tanya Bouchard
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2017
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax is Canada’s newest and sixth national museum. The new crown corporation was established in February of 2011, and took over the operations of its predecessor, the Pier 21 society. With the new institution came the national mandate to explore immigration to Canada from all points of entry, spanning the period from first contact to the present day.
Welcome to Canada Immigration history is one of movement and personal experiences. And so it is fitting that the Museum approach collecting by focusing on personal stories of immigration to Canada, through oral histories and written accounts. Given this focus on intangibles, we have a limited collection of artifacts—just over 1,500 to date. We have carefully selected these artifacts for their diversity; for the histories they help us understand and build upon; and, most importantly, for the memorable immigration stories they encapsulate.
Three such artifacts in the Museum tell us stories about journeys to Canada that took place at different points in time and different points of departure. The first artifact I have chosen for your consideration is one that marked a special occasion in a young woman’s life, the second object was a man’s lifelong companion, and the third marked a significant transition in a child’s life. DRESSED FOR THE OCCASION The Western tradition of wearing a white wedding dress originated with Queen Victoria, when she wore a white gown for her 1840 wedding to Albert of Saxe-Coburg. As wearing a white dress was a luxury, most women usually wore their best dress for their nuptials. For her wedding day Mary Ann Della Torre (née Musgrove) wore a tan-coloured, ribbed-silk dress adorned with mother of pearl buttons. Made in England for Mary Ann in 1874, the dress is the Museum’s oldest and only artifact from the nineteenth century. The dress features a tightly fitted princess-style bodice, with a buttoned front and high neck and six whalebone stays along the seams. The skirt reflects the changing trends of that time period, by the decrease in its overall volume; the emphasis on the back of the skirt; and the abundance of ruching, ruffling and draping of the fabric. The skirt takes shape with a petticoat to support the narrow fanned train, and a cinched waist to accentuate the slender silhouette. A special mannequin had to be made at the Museum to support the garment, which had been designed to fit Mary Ann’s slender figure and 21 ½’’ (54.61 cm) waist.
Research shows that Mary Ann married William Della Torre in 1874, in the Roman Catholic Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London. They later made their way to Canada, where William had previously immigrated with his family and was already working as a merchant, importing French, English and German “fancy” goods. The couple had their first child, Arthur, in 1877, while living in Saint John, New Brunswick, and their second child, Alberta, in 1880 in Montreal, Quebec. The family eventually decided to settle in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Mary Ann lived until she passed away in 1929. Her wedding dress was donated to the Museum by her great-granddaughter in 2014.
HIS LIFELONG COMPANION Born in Käsmu, Estonia, in 1912, Jakob Suksdorf was hired to captain the Pärnu, a small vessel carrying 154 Baltic refugees, including his wife and two daughters. All passengers were seeking a safe haven in Canada. The 1940s Hohner accordion was one of the few possessions Jakob brought along with him.
Fleeing Soviet oppression, thousands left the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the early 1940s. Many Baltic refugees had made their way to nearby Sweden but, by the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was demanding their return. Knowing the dire consequences they would suffer if they returned to their homeland, some decided to combine their resources to buy small vessels destined for Canada.
Among these “little boats” was the Pärnu, a converted wooden mine sweeper. The Pärnu set out for Canada from the Swedish city of Malmö on July 18, 1949. Sixteen days later, it entered Halifax harbour with the blue, black and white flag of Estonia flying high. Arriving illegally in Canada without visas or landing papers, the passengers were detained on arrival, but after nearly two months in detention at Pier 21, almost all of the passengers were permitted entry.
A lifelong musician, Suksdorf would have purchased the instrument in Estonia or while at sea. The accordion was a popular instrument because of its ability to make loud sounds without an amplifier, and it would have been a welcome distraction aboard the vessel. The pianokeyboard accordion was manufactured by the well-known Hohner
Musikinstrumente, a German company established in 1857. The most recognizable part of the accordion, the bellows, is made from pleated layers of stiff blue canvas and cardboard, with metal coverings at their corners. On the right-hand side of the bellows are 41 keys (17 black, 24 white); and on the left-hand side are 120 finger buttons. The top cover and white keys are made of French ivory, a faux ivory made from celluloid, which was widely used until the mid-twentieth century. The accordion came to the Museum in its wooden-domed case covered in faux black leather.
Suksdorf remained in Nova Scotia and kept the accordion until he passed away in 1963. It had been a member of the family for three generations, when Suksdorf’s grandson donated it to the Museum in 2011.
HER FIRST CANADIAN POSSESSION The vintage Mountie figurine in the photo stands on guard at 7.4” (19 cm) tall. He wears the distinctive red serge uniform, including what remains of his flat-brimmed Stetson hat. The figurine is currently on loan to the Museum from its owner, Sheyfali Saujani, who received it as a symbol of welcome upon her arrival in Canada.
On August 4, 1972, the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of the country’s minority Asian population. More than 80,000 Ugandans of Asian heritage were given 90 days to leave the country. In response, Ottawa immediately established a task force and despatched Canadian immigration officials to Kampala. The resettlement of the Ugandan Asians was one of the earliest refugee programs to bring non- Europeans to Canada.
On September 29, 1972, 56 days after the expulsion order, the Saujani family members landed in Montreal, exhausted from the extreme stress of the expulsion and the necessity of leaving everything behind. Sheyfali Saujani, then eight years old, arrived with her parents and two brothers. Sheyfali’s mother, Shanta, wrote in her memoir: “…the air was cold and crisp and I had a four-month-old baby with me. On our arrival, the official at the airport treated us very well and my three children were given a plastic statue of royal Mounties [sic] and my daughter still has this statue and she treasures it.”
The Mountie figurine was designed and made in Canada by the Torontobased Reliable Toy Company. Established in 1920, the company was the “largest toy factory in the British Empire” by 1935, and it was a leader for years in the field of plastic doll manufacturing.
In a 2014 email to the Museum, Sheyfali reminisced about her arrival and receiving the figurine: “We were so tired I could hardly make sense of the gift. It was obviously a kindness…. Probably, I was wishing for the toys we had been forced to leave behind. There’s a vague memory of cheery, welcoming people, the feeling of immense relief, a sense that we were finally safe, but also confusion—what am I supposed to do with this odd, unmoving figure on its awkward little stand? And yet, we kept it. It was, after all, the very first thing we were given—the first Canadian thing we owned. A physical reminder of the moment we set foot in this country.” Objects become important because of the histories and meanings they hold for their owners. These three ordinary objects from our Museum became extraordinary objects because of the personal stories attached to them. All three artifacts marked new beginnings for their owners, and they tell us a chapter in the Canadian immigration story. I hope these stories have inspired and intrigued you. I invite you to share your story of immigration to Canada through our website at https://www.pier21.ca/share; http://www.quai21.ca/partagez.
Tanya Bouchard is/est: Vice-President, Exhibitions, Research and Collections, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21/ Vice-président, Expositions, recherches et collections, Musée canadien de l’immigration du Quai 21.