My View From Pier 21

This week, we celebrate our countries on both sides of the 49th  Parallel: Canada Day on July 1, and U.S. Independence Day on July 4.

But what exactly are we celebrating? What is it that we're patriotic toward? The whole idea of a nation is a rather nebulous one. Exactly what is this thing we call America or Canada?

I got a partial answer a few weeks ago when I went to Pier 21 in Halifax. It’s the Canadian version of Ellis Island, where almost 1 million new Canadians first set foot when they immigrated to this continent. It is a celebration of courage, dreaming and acceptance.

Immigration -- to a great extent -- has woven the fabric of the nations we will celebrate this week. That is what makes the xenophobia that also seems to be part of our character in both countries so puzzling. If there were no immigrants, there would be no nation. At least, certainly not in the form we recognize this week.

These immigrants, wherever they come from, have defined the nation we celebrate so vigorously. The things we revere as ours were forged from the intellect, inspiration and energy of millions that, at one time, had to step on this continent for the very first time.

This includes almost everyone I know. I am the grandchild of immigrants who set sail from Liverpool. My in-laws are immigrants who set sail from Naples. The non-aboriginal roots of this continent do not run deep -- a few generations for most of us -- but they are strong. And this week, I celebrate that. I believe it’s a very good thing.

In 2017, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers partner Mary Meeker showed just how important immigration was to that most hallowed of American ideals, technical innovation. Sixty percent of the highest value tech companies in America were co-founded by first- or second- generation immigrants. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian. Sergey Brin was born in Russia. Facebook, Oracle, IBM, Uber, ADP, eBay: All these American companies exist because someone decided that life would be better in a country other than the one where they were born.

It's convenient to celebrate immigration in hindsight, and tempting to apply “Yes, but” logic to the topic: “Yes, we want immigrants, but only the right kind!”

But what is the right kind? Who makes that choice? Who is wise enough -- who has a crystal ball bright enough -- to be able to look in the future and predict who will be a founder of the next Google or Facebook?

Here in Canada, our record of welcoming new immigrants is hardly spotless. We treated the Chinese abysmally. We did the same to the Japanese during World War Two. In fact, at one time or another, we have discriminated against immigrants from almost every nation on earth.

Looking back, we admit our mistakes and apologize. We are Canadian, after all. But are we any the wiser for this knowledge? Aren’t we just making the same mistakes over and over again? The point of origin may be different, but the prejudice is all too familiar.

At Pier 21, as soon as you enter the door, you see a large mechanical wheel in the entry hall. Called the Wheel of Conscience, it commemorates the tragic story of the MS St. Louis, which set sail for Cuba from Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939. There were 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. They left with valid Cuban visas, but due to a sudden change in immigration policy by a pro-fascist government, they were denied entry in Havana.

They next tried the U.S. and set sail for Florida. Acting on the advice of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the U.S. government also said no. The U.S. Coast Guard trailed the ship to prevent it from running aground and allowing its passengers to illegally enter the country.

Their last chance was Canada. The captain, Gustav Schroder, headed to Halifax, where he was met with the official government decision -- “None is too many” -- voiced by Frederick Blair, Canada’s Director of Immigration at the time. 

The MS St. Louis had no choice but to return to Europe, where the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands received the refugees. Of course, three of these countries would soon be overrun by the Nazis, and it’s estimated that about one quarter of the original passengers did not survive the Holocaust. The names of the refused refugees are engraved on one side of the massive wheel.

The wheel's creator, Daniel Libeskind, was the son of Holocaust survivors. He was born in Poland and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1957. He became one of North America’s best-known architects and industrial designers. In 2002, he was chosen to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

 If you want to celebrate a nation, this seems like a good place to start.

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