Illustration by Rui Ricardo.

On a blustery day in Halifax, I make my way along the waterfront, past the lighthouse on Georges Island and the glass-walled Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. I am heading to the Scotiabank Family History Centre to learn more about my father’s side of the family. The centre helps visitors discover their heritage using immigration records from 1865 to 1935, ship manifests, and census, birth, marriage and death records.

As I prepared for my visit, I thought the process would be easy enough—plug a couple of names into a search bar and watch the hits pile up. But, when I tried to think back to the generations beyond my grandparents, my memory failed me. I knew the names of my paternal great-grandfather and great uncle. I’d heard stories about both men while I was growing up: Freeman Ferrier Treleaven, a former mayor of Hamilton, Ont., and Russell Treleaven, a superior court justice. Unfortunately, the names and stories of my female ancestors were largely missing, their maiden names lost upon marriage and the lines of my ancestral history obscured.

I called my aunt Jane, who, despite noting she’d had wine with lunch, offered to help. We talked a little about my grandmother, Alice, and about the side of the family that allegedly absconded with an inheritance. She told me to look for Jessie Hill Crombie. I was almost certain it was a name I hadn’t heard before.

Halifax’s Pier 21 is a former immigration facility and ocean liner terminal that, from 1928 to 1971, served as the arrival point for more than a million immigrants to Canada. It now houses a national museum that chronicles the broader story of immigration to this country.

Although cruise ships still dock on the harbour side of the building, it’s a non-cruise ship day when I arrive, so it is quiet at the Scotiabank Family History Centre located on the first floor. A staff member guides me to a computer. She takes down a couple of names and starts whizzing through its database, printing as she goes. I watch as elaborate, cursive handwriting flickers across the screen, indicating death, marriage and census records.

Cara MacDonald, reference services manager at the museum, says information requests vary wildly. “As a country, we’re so diverse,” she says.

A photo of my great-grandfather, Freeman, flashes on the screen. I had seen it before, in a pile of photos that live in a shoebox in my dad’s basement. He’s wearing a suit and tie and looks extremely proud. By all accounts, he was a truly nice man. I feel a lump in my throat. My reaction doesn’t exactly surprise me. Notoriously sentimental, I once had to be removed by friends from a TLC A Wedding Story marathon because I couldn’t keep it together. MacDonald reassures me emotional reactions are common. “Every desk in the library has a box of tissues on it,” she says.

The thing that really gets me, where the corners of my eyes finally moisten and I find myself grabbing for tissues, is when we find Jessie Hill Crombie’s arrival card. There’s something about the mundane details of her voyage—details that mirror millions of other immigrants—that feels overwhelming. My grandmother’s mother left Glasgow, Scotland, aboard the SS Corinthian on May 25, 1907, arriving in Montreal on June 4. She listed her occupation as “dressmaker” and she was only 20 years old. I feel transported more than a century into the past.

An hour later, I leave the museum with an envelope full of information about my family, and my mind occupied by thoughts of long passages to far off places and the balance of optimism and anxiety required to make such a journey. After years of putting it off, it turns out it took just one visit to help erase the distance between my family’s history and me.

Two More Canadian Resources

Black Loyalist Heritage Centre

Located in Birchtown, N.S., about two hours southwest of Halifax, this centre tells the story of the late 18th century’s largest free African settlement. Visitors can search a virtual copy of the Book of Negroes, a  ord of 3,000 black loyalists who came to the province following the Revolutionary War.

Vancouver Public Library

For Canadians interested in exploring their Chinese roots, the Vancouver Public Library assists families with their own genealogical research. The library offers a series of online and curated resources, and a variety of on-site workshops.

[This story appears in the March 2020 edition of WestJet Magazine.]