Pier 21 exhibit celebrates figure skating champions

By Shelby Banks

Immigrants who came to Canada from the 1930s to the late 1990s fled their home countries to become world-famous figure skaters.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened an exhibit this week called “Perfect Landings” that chronicles these skaters.

“Looking at this history is a lens; it provides us with a really useful set of reflections on broader immigration history,” says Steven Schwinghamer, the historian at Pier 21 who organized the exhibit.

“Things like the process of admission, integration into Canada, questions about belonging and transnational identity.  The case studies that we use in this exhibit help us answer and understand all of these things.”

One of the case studies featured is about Ellen Burka and her daughter, Petra Burka. For Ellen Burka, skating saved her life.

“Ellen was a Dutch Jew and was persecuted during the war, up to being sent into concentration camps,” says Schwinghamer.

John Knebli, who is included in the exhibit, was not a figure skater but a shoemaker, says Schwinghamer.

John Knebli passed through  Pier 21 when he came to Canada in the 1930s.  He went back to Hungary to pick up his wife and they started their life in Toronto, where he established a shoemaking business. That’s where he started making skates.

“One of the customers had said, ‘could you make something for my son?’ and this was his first time making skates,” says Schwinghamer.

“He breaks into the business sort of by coincidence and winds up being really one of the primer equipment makers in the history of the sport in Canada, so he was making skates for skating athletes.”

Most of the skates that were available were unreliable.  But Knebli was able to make perfect skates for the sport.

“They were the tie on, or the imperfect screws or something and so the ability to do anything that would really put any stress on the skate joint at all you just couldn’t do it,” says Schwinghaer. Knebli passed away in Toronto at the age of 92 in 1997.

Trafford Bright, who works at the museum, brought his wife to see the exhibit. “She really wanted to come see the skating exhibit and was looking forward to learn
ing about the history of immigration in Canada and the skaters,” he says.

George Zwaagstra, a volunteer at Pier 21, met some of the skaters featured in the exhibit, including Victor Kraatz at the 2003 world championships, who became a junior ice dance champion.

“I was there, I have seen some of these people skate at competitions.  They were great people and I was proud to see them in the ‘Perfect Landings’ exhibit,” says Zwaagstra.    

With Halifax hosting the National Skating Championships that ends on Jan. 24, Schwinghamer hopes that the exhibit will get more people to come out and consider the history of the skating athletes and the history of the sport and is open until March 20.

”Many figure skating fans are passionate in a way that it extends good awareness of the sport and the history of the competitors,” says Schwinghamer.

The skating oval on the Halifax Commons gives Halifax another connection to the exhibit, says Schwinghamer.

“People are continuously investing into the oval because public skating has captured the imagination, a lot of people use it,” says Schwinghamer.

“When we talk about the popularization of the sport of skating, and when we consider sort of the origins of well-organized sports in the country, Halifax is a great place to show this exhibit,” says Schwinghamer.  “We have sort of that local hook.”