Nautical Royalty and the Migrant Experience

It’s not often you get to see two of the Cunard Line’s great passenger ships in port at the same time. It’s particularly significant in Halifax, where Samuel Cunard founded the company. Last week crowds lined the shores in brilliant late afternoon sunshine to watch the spectacle of Queen Elizabeth 3 and Queen Mary 2 leave their berths, steam in line up the Dartmouth side of the harbour, then turn seaward along the Halifax piers; Queen Elizabeth bound for St. John’s and Queen Mary for New York. Surely a more stately sight than Britannia, Cunard’s first tiny hybrid paddlewheel steamer with its full suit of sails furled away as backup, chuntering seaward along the same course 180 years ago.

Queens departing Halifax
Queen Mary (left) and Queen Elizabeth (ahead ) depart Halifax, 26 June 2019

I have a special fondness for Queen Mary 2, having immigrated to Canada (via New York) aboard her predecessor, back in the day when crossing the Atlantic by air was still a new but unaffordable luxury to us common folk. Dad had gone ahead to find a job, then Mum and I followed.

Whatever inspired me to join the Navy later in life, it certainly wasn’t that first exposure to life at sea as a kid. January isn’t a great choice for a trans-Atlantic passage, even at the best of times. By the mid-point of our five day voyage I was avoiding our tiny, shared six-bunk cabin and spending most of the time sheltering on a covered deck open to the stern, tucked into a deckchair beside my mother, and swaddled under a blanket while watching the horizon pitch and roll in time with a thoroughly emptied stomach. Approaching the Grand Banks of Newfoundland we were experiencing what the ship’s log described in endearingly British understatement as a “whole gale” and “rough sea”. Translated into landlubber terms, that means an endless procession of heaving, grey mountains of seawater, streaked with windblown spindrift, as if exquisitely designed to cause misery and make a person feel very, very small. The experience did, however, leave me with a lifetime appreciation for the nourishing warmth of beef tea, the stomach-settling properties of Canada Dry Ginger Ale, and a fond memory of the kindly steward who took me under his wing until we disembarked safely in New York, where he left me with a much-treasured souvenir postcard signed “To my First Mate on Deck”. Happily, in later life I came to revel in the power of a storm at sea, feel exhilarated at the resilience of a well-found vessel, and be grateful for the occasional glass of Canada Dry (no other brand will do).

Souvenit card
A record of the voyage given to passengers on arrival in New York, January 1954

My parents and I had joined a steady stream of people seeking a better life in the aftermath of a war that had reduced vast swathes of the “Old World” into what the current leader of the world’s richest but increasingly flawed democracy might dismiss as “shitholes”. On this side of our shared border it’s worrying to hear vocal fellow Canadians echoing equally simplistic, ill-informed anti-migrant attitudes. I know it doesn’t pay to generalize, but when I got my first job, working in a factory making freezers, I was struck by the fact that the foremen and most productive workers were all immigrants, grateful for the opportunity, while many of those born here did the minimum while grumbling about “foreigners” getting the best jobs. But then who knows, perhaps like our cousins to the south, we migrants to Canada might one day be encouraged by a popularly elected head of government to go back where we came from. If so, I’d like to go by sea.

Of course the worst of the anti-migration rhetoric is just patent nonsense, especially coming, as it usually does, from people with “white” skin, all of whom – without exception – are descended from migrants of one sort or another. And I’ll bet none of those took a test for indigenous values, learned or adopted the native language, blended into the culture of whichever First Nation they settled, or kept their religious symbols out of sight. Indeed, even today, a few pious female descendants of migrants still appear in public wearing chador-like outfits (the nuns call them “habits”). The inconsistency and hypocrisy of such “white” anti-immigrationism is astounding.

Without question, managing immigration and refugees is a difficult challenge in a complex world, but it’s not going to be made any simpler by the confrontational and thinly disguised prejudice of “us versus them”. If nations can be said to share common values, then one that has made Canada great already is moderation. Keeping Canada great requires us to demand that politics and policies on such matters be based on fact, logic and, above all, fair mindedness.