A ‘wonderful discovery’ for numismatists at Pier 21

Longtime friends rekindle childhood memories at iconic immigration shed

By Jesse Robitaille

As the current European migrant crisis boils over into a global issue, countries like our own are debating whether to allow a new wave of refugees through its borders.

In January, the federal Conservatives announced its intentions for the government to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years in response to a United Nation’s request to increase admission numbers. But with nine civil wars raging throughout the Middle East and Africa, it’s estimated nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes—up from 51.2 million in 2013—and about one third of these refugees are now seeking asylum abroad.


While the Government of Canada considers its course of action, let’s not forget past migrant crises, particularly surrounding the Second World War, after which about 12 million civilian refugees were left wandering Europe in search of a new home.

Some of these refugees, as we’ll soon see, were given the opportunity to make a new home in Canada.

But much like what’s happening today, many of these refugees were also turned away in fear of the apparent detriments they would have on life in Canada. In May 1939, the passenger liner St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis. After being turned away from Miami, the refugees met a similar fate in Halifax before returning to Europe, which soon became engulfed in total war. It’s estimated a quarter of the St. Louis’ passengers ultimately died in concentration camps.

As unfounded fears abound in regards to what impact this new wave of refugees might have in Canada, let’s look back at an inspiring success story involving immigrants from decades past.


Among the thousands of people fleeing war-torn Europe after the Second World War were Len Buth, Hubert Grimminck, Ursula McDonald and Joseph Iorio, each of whom arrived through Pier 21 (now the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21) in Halifax more than 50 years ago. Interestingly, it would be half a century before they all made the connection.

The landing spot of more than one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971, Pier 21 has earned a place in Canadian history books for its impact on the country’s formation throughout the 20th century.

According to Cailin MacDonald, communications manager at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, one in five Canadians has a connection to the iconic pier, which is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in the country.

Buth, a prominent numismatic author and board member of the J. Douglas Ferguson Historical Research Foundation, arrived first, on Nov. 19, 1949.

“My parents sacrificed greatly to ensure their sons would have a better life in Canada after the war,” said Buth, who emigrated from Holland with his parents and brother. “Canada has provided a wonderful opportunity to succeed.”

And succeed he has, along with scores of other immigrants who came and continue to come to Canada in search of a better life.


Four years after arriving in Canada, Buth’s neighbour handed him a communion token, beginning a hobby that would last to the present day. Throughout those 62 years spent collecting anything from tokens to coins and medals, Buth has also earned a name as one of Canada’s top numismatic judges.

At the same time he became involved in Canadian numismatics, another collector, Grimminck, emigrated from Holland.

“We are collectors, my family—we have the bug of collecting—so I always collected, but the buck started in ’66 with the Canadian coinage,” said Grimminck, who traveled some 6,450 kilometres to find a new home in Canada.

“I became a Canadian and was interested in Canadian history and Canadian currency, so I collected Canadian coins and Canadian Tire memorabilia because I had to have something to do.”

The following year, on April 24, 1954, McDonald arrived at Pier 21 from Klein Elbe, a small town in the German state of Lower Saxony.

In 1975, she was introduced to numismatics through the Canadian Olympic coin program. Over the years, McDonald and her husband Peter have become a staple of the Canadian coin community, attending many shows and conventions along the way.


One recent gathering was at the annual convention of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA), where McDonald met with Iorio, Grimminck and Buth.

“It was at the Mint reception at the Pier 21 museum that we did make the connection we were all children, arriving from different European countries and witnessing all through a child’s eyes,” said McDonald. “It was a joyous and jubilant discovery and celebration.”

Two years after McDonald arrived, Iorio emigrated from Italy.

“I was only seven years old, so I’m not sure how much we all remember,” he said, with a laugh.

In his first decade in Canada, Iorio became increasingly involved in numismatics, leveraging his hobby into a full-fledged business called J&M Coin & Jewellery.

“I managed to stay above board,” he said, adding his business began in 1967. “It’s been pretty close to 50 years now.”

Soon after starting his business, Iorio met McDonald, Buth and Grimminck. He has served them all as a coin dealer and friend ever since.

“Ursula I met back in the early ’70s, and the other two I met later on towards the 1980s,” he said. “They’ve been customers on and off over the years. I consider them friends.”


It wasn’t until this year’s RCNA Convention that the four longtime friends realized they all entered Canada at that exact location.

“What a wonderful discovery, that we all had immigrated from different European countries, to exactly this same historic place, and beyond,” said McDonald. “Our tumultuous voyages to and from Pier 21—from ship, freighter, trains—represents a hard and harsh immigrant life in order to live in the land of freedom, Canada. Our parents of war-torn Europe wanted a better life for their children, and we all started living a hard-scrabble life, for years.”

After nearly six decades in Canada, Iorio admits it’s “very hard to beat living here.”

“It’s one of the best places in the world,” he added. “I never want to leave Canada. It’s certainly for the better.”

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