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A Volunteer Legacy

Two women smile at a third person off camera.

Sylvia Yates (left) and Lynn Brebner (right)             ©


Word has gotten out that Lynn Brebner and Sylvia Yates are retiring as Museum volunteers after 13 years, and the response from other volunteers and staff has been quick:

“You’re not allowed to leave!”

Volunteers like Lynn and Sylvia are highly valued. They are treasured for their vast knowledge and experience at the Museum, just as volunteers were when Pier 21 operated as an immigration shed.

Between 1928 and 1971, when Pier 21 welcomed one million immigrants, refugees, war brides, evacuee children and displaced persons to Canada, volunteers played a very important role. They came from many different organizations, and worked tirelessly to welcome newcomers, to speak to them in their own languages and often to ensure that they had what they needed to start a successful life in Canada.

Today, the Museum would be nothing without the volunteers who welcome visitors from across Canada and around the world. Volunteers instruct and learn, sharing stories from immigration history and ensuring that visitors feel the spirit of the Museum and the history of Pier 21.

Lynn, a retired nurse, has been volunteering here since January 2000, her first year in Halifax. After receiving some mail from the Pier 21 Society (the non-profit group that ran the museum from 1999 until 2011 when it became the national Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21) asking for volunteers, she told her friend Sylvia about it, and they decided to go to a volunteer orientation session.

“Things were very different then,” says Lynn.  “The place was run by volunteers.

Sylvia, a former teacher, recalls how they used to lead big school groups before the education department was established.  Getting thrown into unpredictable situations taught them how to give all kinds of tours.

“With children, for instance, I really try and encourage them to take an interest in their grandparents’ stories, their roots. What we do here is almost like propaganda for Canadian history,” says Sylvia chuckling. “We’ve seen so much change here, this place can be so different—and we can make such a difference with the right kind of vision.”

 This vision has been very much enhanced by volunteers like Lynn and Sylvia.

“Our volunteers contribute so much and have such an understanding of the Museum,” says Laura McLean, Volunteer Services Manager at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. “Their experiences add a deeper dimension to Museum life.Lynn and Sylvia have been working at the Museum longer than most Museum staff!”

Lynn and Sylvia’s significant influence at the Museum is further confirmed by a passerby during our interview. The onlooker turns out to be a returning teacher: “This is my ninth visit to the Museum. I hoped my favourite tour guides were still here!”

Lynn and Sylvia have certainly left their mark on the Museum. They recognize the importance of this place, for them personally and for the many visitors who pass through its doors.

“The fact is, Pier 21 means a lot to Canadians and to our international visitors. People come to Halifax from all over the world,” says Sylvia. “They are very interested to come here, whether they’re from cruise ships, other countries, or other parts of Canada.”

“It’s a special place,” says Lynn: “As soon as they set foot in here, all the emotions come flooding back.”

So what’s the secret to being a good volunteer?

“Make sure you love and enjoy history; take an interest in the people, always ask where they come from. And above all that, you’ve got to have a sense of humour,” says Sylvia with a smile.

Lynn and Sylvia have seen lots of changes at the Museum over 13 years. And they both agree that they’re going to miss being here, though now they will have a chance to travel and make changes in their own lives.

They leave some words of encouragement for new volunteers coming to work at the Museum:

“Volunteer experience here is totally rewarding; the enjoyment will be hard to replace,” Sylvia says. “There’s a kind of magic about the’s going to be hard to stay away.”

A group of people standing behind others who are seated at a table laden with food.

Back row: Frank Morash, Lena Hardiman, Angelique Cishahayo, Elisabeth Tower, Kate Abarbanel, André Tremblay, Laura McLean, Carrie-Ann Smith Front row: John Kubicek, Scott Stewart, Lynn Brebner, Sylvia Yates