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Volunteers at the Pier

December 5 is International Volunteer day. This is the story of a connected chain of volunteers who have served at the Canadian Museum of Immigration and its home, Pier 21.

Possibly the longest serving volunteer in the history of Pier 21, Sadie Fineberg helped welcome countless immigrants and refugees over more than three decades from the mid-30s right up until 1971 when Pier 21 closed its doors. She first served as a representative of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society (JIAS), welcoming Jews arriving from Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, she welcomed anyone who she could see needed a friendly greeting or reassurance. Immigrants arriving from many different countries often couldn’t speak English. Sadie Fineberg was proficient in several languages, which she used to help orient newcomers. When immigrants arrived without money or provisions, regardless of their religion, she and her husband Morris, who owned a food service business, donated boxes of food to the new arrivals.

One person Fineberg welcomed, in 1939, was Meta Echt. Echt and her family were fleeing the increasing hostility of the Nazis in Danzig (then a Free City located in the corridor between Germany and Poland). Echt’s daughter, Marianne Ferguson, later reported: “We were met by Mrs. Sadie Fineberg, who was so welcoming and friendly and who introduced us to a number of other very kind people, that my parents decided we would remain in Nova Scotia instead of going into the Montreal area."

When in 1948, the Mayor of Halifax appointed Fineberg to be the city’s official greeter at Pier 21, (a role she undertook on a volunteer basis), her position at the JIAS was taken up by Meta Echt. Echt often brought young Marianne with her to the Pier to volunteer in welcoming new arrivals, including many Holocaust survivors.

Years later, inspired by the memory of those experiences, Marianne returned to the site to volunteer first for the Pier 21 society and through its transition to the Canadian Museum of Immigration. In those early days of its reopening as a National Historical site, the operations of Pier 21 relied heavily on volunteers. Apart from greeting visitors and guiding tours through the site, in later years Marianne began baking for the volunteers and staff in the Museum’s kitchen.

Marianne Ferguson

Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier21 [DI2013.1018.19]

When Debbie Matheson’s childhood best friend Shirley Nason moved back to Halifax in 2006, the two decided to volunteer somewhere together once a week. One day they ran into their friend Ruth Goldbloom, past Chair and champion of Pier 21 society, and told her they were looking for somewhere to volunteer but couldn’t decide what to do. As Debbie recalls, “[Ruth] said, ‘I’ve got a job for you! As a matter of fact I have two jobs!’ We asked what it was and she said ‘I haven’t figured that out yet!” The friends’ first job would be to transcribe immigration stories.

Debbie Matheson

Debbie would soon run into another woman she knew: “When I went to Pier 21 to volunteer, lo and behold, Marianne (Ferguson) was there baking.” The two knew each other from volunteering together for the IWK Health Health Centre. “We’d chat about how great the Pier was and talk about how fortuitous it was we’d known each other in another context.”

But it was working with Shirley that was really meaningful. Working side by side collating information from visitor comment cards or working in Collections, the two developed a love not only for the Museum and the stories it houses, but also for the staff. “They make you feel like you are part of the mechanism that makes the place work.”

Then in 2014 Shirley passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.

The Museum’s volunteer coordinators told Debbie there was no rush to come back but she didn’t stay away for long. “They asked if I wanted another partner to work with and I told them no.”

Debbie’s passion for the Museum and its stories would spill into her daily life. The stories of War Brides were an area of special interest. “I’m enamoured with the work I do there.” She would talk about her work to her pilates instructor, Christine Somerville.

Inspired by the stories she heard and by the fact that her mother was a War Bride, Christine started volunteering for the Museum in 2015. Like Debbie, she is still volunteering today.

The Museum’s Volunteer Program is presented by Scotiabank.

Staff and volunteers