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A Conversation with the Past

John, a volunteer at the museum, stands with the help of a cane next to a museum model in a glass case.

I can remember the day in the first grade when our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. A teacher, I responded without hesitation. From that day forward, that is all I ever responded when people asked that question. This goal of mine was finally going to be achieved when I got accepted into a bachelor of education program in the fall of 2008. I remember that first day well, especially my disappointment when the Dean of Education got up in the auditorium to speak to my whole class and the first words out of his mouth were “We cannot teach you how to be teacher.” After I graduated from my B.Ed, I contemplated back to that first day and realized that no, they had never actually taught us how to teach, as that is a skill that comes from within. I did however still learn valuable lessons that I could use, not just in the classroom, but also in my second career within the tourism sector as an interpreter. My first teachable was social studies and over the two years of my program I was taught by a brilliant teacher named Mr. Stone. He went out of his way to not only give us the resources to be good teachers, but to give us experiences as students to see what a good teacher was. My favourite lesson of his was to not always resort to the history books for lessons of the past, the best lessons are learned from communicating with people that have actually lived through it (speaking of the more recent past of course!). Carmen organized a discussion forum for us with some members of his church congregation who had been living in Halifax during the Second World War so that we could learn what it was like in Halifax during that period. We heard some fascinating stories like when a German blimp came and mapped out the city. How scary would that be knowing that the enemy was so close that they could get into the city to see a film, but yet also humbling to also realize that they are human too and also missed aspects of pre-war life.

Using this lesson from Carmen, I decided one day to put away the big research binder filled with an overloading amount of information about Pier 21 and find out what it was really like by talking to someone who was here when it was open as an immigration shed. John has been a volunteer here at Pier 21 for 5 years now. He comes multiple times a week to share his stories with our visitors and the staff here at Pier 21. John used to work at Pier 21 as a ships agent with the Italian and Greek liners for I.H.Mathers Company. He loves to spend his time using the site model to tell people about the process through here at Pier 21. I absorbed more from John in 15 minutes than I did in hours of research that I have done before talking to him. One of his favourite stories to share is of a young woman who came through Pier 21 when she was just a small girl. The immigration officer, Frank Wright, gave her a penny when she passed by his desk. When the small girl got to where her family was settling in Canada she attached it to a chain and wore it as a necklace. When she had a son several years later she turned it into a pin to wear on his clothes each day. John then always asks, “Do you know how I know this?” One day when John was working, a young woman comes in and asks John if he knew where Frank was. By coincidence Frank walked in behind this young woman, she turned around and screamed with delight upon seeing Frank. Having been several years since this young woman came through the first time, Frank had no idea who this woman was who was giving him a big hug. She told him the story of how he gave her a penny when she first arrived in Canada and how her son now proudly wears it each day. It’s amazing to think back to this occasion and on how this one penny made such an impact on this young girl on her first few hours here in Canada that she treasured it for the rest of her life, yet to Frank, it was nothing of grand significance until they were reunited.

Where John greeted so many of the Italian liners when they docked at the Pier, he revels in talking to our visitors and alumni of Italian descent. John tells us the story of how Italian immigrants coming to Canada had to pay an extra $15.00 on their passage fees that would then be reimbursed when they arrived here at Pier 21. Some of our guests who had relatives coming over on one of these liners will usually test John’s knowledge to see if he knew just how much their parents or grandparents had when they first arrived.

Those are just a few of the many stories that I have learned about Pier 21 from John. I absolutely love my job for this reason. Each and every day brings on a new story about the Pier as I meet someone who came through here or through their children coming to see where their family first started in Canada. At your next visit the museum try and find John who can often be found around the model of Pier 21 or at the Immigration desk and find out for yourselves what it was like through his eyes as a ship’s agent here in Halifax. I also encourage you all to strike up conversations with people within your communities to find out what life was really like during key events in your town. You never know what you may find!