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The Pier 21 Staff Story of Malcolm MacLeod (Catering Staff)

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Excerpt from Arm-Tales: Retired history professor recalls growing up at Halifax in the 1940's and 1950's reproduced with permission of the author

Episode 22: PIER 21 (1954-55)

Halifax was very good to me in my youth. The port city offered numerous splendid opportunities for new experience and personal growth. An outstanding example of my good fortune– situations leading to happy outcomes that were entirely unearned, due entirely to chance– is the employment I lucked into when I first entered the fulltime workforce after completing Grade 12.

A couple of friends had the same plan I did: to work for a year and get some money ahead before enrolling in University. Seeking employment, the best bet seemed to be the federal government. We all three wrote the public service examination for general clerical duties, passed, and received offers. It was like a lottery. One of us went to an office in the naval dockyard, issuing supplies to ships. One became file clerk in a giant bureaucracy, either National Health & Welfare, or Unemployment Insurance Commission. And I was offered the position of clerk-cashier in the catering office at Department of Citizenship & Immigration.

The reason my outcome was luckier than my chums was not because the work was more challenging or more interesting. In fact, much of the work I did during my 14 months at Immigration was repetitive, unskilled and downright menial. Where I lucked out was in my job's location. Many people who know next to nothing about Halifax are nevertheless a little familiar with my work station. "Halifax, Halifax" they try to think, " gables, no that's the island; reversing falls... is that Moncton? Halifax,... oh yes, Pier21" . The policies and processes underway at Pier 21 back in those years were so sensitive and important that the whole place has since become a national museum and sort of shrine. And Pier 21 is where I was sent to work.

In the southern reaches of Halifax, behind the new railway station which replaced the one destroyed in the 1917 explosion, Ocean Terminals have the deepest-water berths in the whole harbor. Ships, of all sizes up to the world's largest, tie up alongside, at a wharf that runs along harbor side for a full half kilometer. The seawall of this wharf is flanked by an apron of generous width, on the landward side of which there is a substantial, two-storey shed running the full length. Pier 21 is the middle portion of this building.

Landward again, when I worked there, lay a rail line that has since been decommissioned. On the city side of the rail line was a tall, single-storey shed known as the Immigration Annex. Coming to work, Immigration employees inspectors, guards, managers, clerical and kitchen staff would mount a set of stairs attached to the Annex and cross over the tracks by skywalk. My usual office was on Pier 21's second storey. I had a window that looked out to the harbor, to any ships that happened to be berthed there and those arriving from everywhere in the world, with picturesque George's Island in mid-stream. Matching the dual function of the Catering department, in which I was clerk-cashier, I actually had two work stations. The other was at the canteen in the Annex; we will get to it later.

One reason why Immigration needed a catering department was to feed the inhabitants of detention quarters. A sort of gentle jail occupied part of the space at Pier 21. At any time that winter there were as few as a dozen, or over a hundred, persons being accommodated (held) in detention there. It was because their papers were not quite in order, or they were waiting for additional cash, certificates or affidavits to arrive, or unfortunately, they had been ordered deported and were awaiting transport.

The Catering department operated a cafeteria that served three meals a day to detainees. Since we were in the restaurant business anyway, noontime offerings were expanded to serve lunch to Immigration employees and a few others who happened to work along that part of the waterfront. At one end of the cafeteria there was a well-equipped kitchen with cold and normal storage; at the other end a door led into my work station, which was an ante-room leading to offices occupied by the director and assistant director of catering. At the kitchen end the staff consisted of two cooks and two or three servers and washers-u p, plus a squad of casual workers which expanded or contracted according to the number of folk in Detention.

In the dining hall part of my job, I did not have a whole lot to do. I assisted with ordering supplies while the cooks handled all of the receiving and storing. There was cash to be counted, coins rolled, and trips to the closest bank (at Hollis and Morris Streets). I kept time sheets on employees. I typed up simple menus for the cafeteria choices, which were always so simple they were easily abbreviated: Mondays fried pot., Tuesdays mashed pot., Wednesdays steamed pot., etc.

The fact that this aspect of the work was not very onerous is indicated by the fact I had time to teach myself touch-typing that winter. Since I was already a pretty rapid four-finger typist, I had to slow down quite a bit in order to learn proper typing skills. A friend encouraged me no to look at the keyboard, and provided chart showing which fingers should be used for each key. When none of my catering work was pressing, I labored away transcribing a serial novel that appeared weekly in the Montreal Standard. It was a murder in a movie theatre, the catch being that noise from the projector masked the sound of the gunshot. By springtime I was up to 40 or 50 words per minute without looking at the keyboard, proper stenographer style. I thought acquiring skill in typing was a wise preparation for an aspiring university student who wanted to turn in impressive-looking term papers. In fact this skill has stood me in good stead for a lifetime as an academic and writer– although I no longer remember who committed the Montreal Standard murder, or what movie was supposed to be playing.

Although the Immigration cafeteria was located right in detention quarters, I did not get to know many of the detainees. Most of them were there for only a short time, and there was usually a language barrier. One group I did get to know well was a family from England, consisting of the mother and two teen-agers. The oldest child, a girl about my own age, had permission to travel around Halifax (some of us called this'going ashore'). She went out daily, seeking employment, and soon was hired onto the clerical staff at Ben's Bakery. When she began working there, the family became landed immigrants and moved into their own accommodation ashore; perhaps the lack of a steady income was all that had been keeping them in Detention. I stayed in touch with these new Canadian for some time, on account of the girl.

The Catering department's second function was to operate a small grocery store for the benefit of newly arriving immigrants. The store– we called it'canteen'– was located at one end of the hollow, echoing immigration annex. "Boat days" , when migrants would arrive in groups of several hundred at a time, occurred once or twice a week. The usual routine saw them coming off their ship in the morning and early afternoon. Then came several hours of interviews, examination and processing by our Immigration inspectors.

The inspectors were the demi-gods of the Pier 21 operation. Unlike everyone else, they understood the complicated Immigration Act and its voluminous, finely-honed regulations. They decided who could properly be admitted to Canada, who had to go back, and who detained. Meanwhile, as inspectors examined today's batch of immigrants, over in the Annex we of the catering department were furiously stocking shelves and making sandwiches.

On the shelves in our canteen were the simplest of foodstuffs: bread, canned meat and fruit, soft drinks, cookies, crackers and spreads. Our sandwiches were usually cheese or ham or sometimes, when a fit of creativity struck the boss, ham and cheese. Making these sandwiches was a marvel of efficiency. The two managers, myself, and three or four casual workers brought in for boat day worked at it all together. Slices from two or three loaves of bread at a time were spread on a large surface. We buttered each slice, cost-effectively, my melting the butter first and applying it very sparingly with a brush.

In an assembly-line operation, someone slapped on the ingredient, someone else the second slice, someone cut the result into two pieces and someone wrapped it. Just once there was a bad delay. To cut each sandwich in two, one of the two woman casuals would draw a knife across it, while pressing down on the blade's dull edge with her other hand. On this occasion, in a rush, she accidentally had the knife's sharp edge pointing upwards. She was able to stop before doing herself permanent damage. There was a lot of blood. The rumour that our cost-conscious boss sold the nearby sandwiches as strawberry something is grossly exaggerated.

The rational behind our grocery store operation, often explained to me although I never saw it committed to paper (and perhaps it could not be) was this: Once processed and admitted to Canada, almost all the immigrants were destined to go forward to Montreal on special trains that CN operated for the purpose. They would need to eat on the 24-hour journey, but once on board the train they would be captive customers for high prices. Inspectors therefore advised the immigrants, while they waited in the annex, to stock up on food supplies at our non-profit, low-cost canteen.

They began flooding into the annex in the late afternoon, to wait for trains that left at 9, 10, 11 or midnight. Now we made up for an indolence in the other half of the catering operation by becoming extremely busy. Customers stayed in single file as they entered the canteen from the queue outside, passed along our narrow aisle choosing items which they carried in baskets rather than carts to save space, and ended the tour at my cash register where beverages, and sandwiches for the trip, through a window that opened to the waiting area from the far end of the canteen.

Many families came through the grocery line-up more than once. For several hours the main queue outside just got longer and longer, while the sandwich line-up sometimes rivaled it. There is a visual record in a book published 30 years later, Pier 21 by Trudy Mitic and J.P.LeBlanc. The middle photo on page 149 shows the canteen, according to the caption' around 1950'. Actually, the year was 1955, and that broad-shouldered chap in the pale yellow sweater I can still remember, packing groceries with his back to the camera– it's me! I never worked so steadily in the rest of my life, as on those boat days in the Immigration canteen. I started checking people through at 4 o'clock, the next time I looked at my watch it was already 7, yet it seemed that only a little while had passed. Five minutes later I looked again and it was 9:15.

By this time perhaps the crowd was beginning to slacken– or perhaps not, depending on the whims of CN in getting a train ready on the tracks outside. When we were able to relax a little bit, we often noticed that the immigrants in the big waiting room had become positively jolly. A party atmosphere prevailed. Having endured the boredom of a week's crossing from the home port in northern or southern Europe, they had now successfully run the gauntlet of Canada's immigration inspectors, would be whisked to Montreal tomorrow, and after that Toronto, Winnipeg, who knows where, reunion with relatives, implementation of plans they had made. For us everything was workaday, chore-driven; for these new Canadians things had finally started to unfold, and this was actually the first day of the rest of their lives.

The children took it most in stride. The very youngest had drifted off to sleep; the others could not possibly do that and continued with their paper airplanes, bouncing balls and peekaboo until parents said they would be left behind, or worse, CN threatened violence. In the lull before boarding the train, musicians in the crowd sometimes unsheathed their instruments; dull North American ears were treated to an interrupted international concert that went on all winter, and might be Polish/Italian/Dutch on successive boat days, depending on what ship had arrived.

As the annex thinned out, and the train hooted preparations for leaving, we surveyed the canteen's emptied and thoroughly liven-in look. Invariably, the boss decided that most of the clean-up could wait until tomorrow. If it was after scheduled public transit times, he had a budget for getting employees home by taxi.

My year at Immigration was a transition– for the first time in my life, I belonged to a group of adults engaged in a common enterprise. They all thought I was grown up- so, I was. I began to learn more complicated niceties of dealing with persons of varied status, from cafeteria casual to uniformed inspector. Workday stratification was weakened when we all played together at the start of the weekend. On Friday nights, the Immigration bowling league took over the basement alleys in the temporary building, previously military but now housing the Unemployment Insurance Commission, at the corner of Hollis and Terminal Road.

The leader and best bowler on the team to which I was assigned was BW, a fast-talking, energetic, decisive inspector. He excelled in the lightning strike. The ball rolled with great speed, diagonally from the right side of the bowling area, to strike the front pin just left or right of centre, and they all fell down. This acquaintance drew my attention again to the Immigration Act, and I realized that a studious fellow like myself could master its intricacies if he put his mind to it. Competitive examinations were held every year or two. I did not actively intend to take the exam, for my career plan was firmly set– United Church minister (I became an atheist later on)– but I was starting to see that for an adult like me, various possibilities, hitherto unimagined, could unfold in numerous directions.

Other members of our bowling foursome included one of the guards, and K, a curvaceous young woman my own age, who typed correspondence for the officer-in-charge. She lived in the north end. I must say I admired her north end, south end too, and views from every other angle. Emboldened by our bowling chumdom, I asked her out a couple of times. I even went, unannounced, to the door of the house where she lived with her parents. None of these approaches worked. Why was that? Toward the end of the winter I attended a dance sponsored by the Catholic Youth Organization and there was k on the stage, taking part in a talent contest. She sang an Irish song with a clear, true voice. I realized she was Catholic, whereas I was not only a Protestant, but a religious one at that. I was able to console myself with this explanation for the failure of my courtship gambits– and indeed, in Halifax of that day, there were many who thought the chasm between Protestant and Catholic was both bottomless and unbridgeable.

On the longest boat days, ending after midnight, the last ones to leave the now-deserted annex were RT and HC (the two bosses), Mrs. N (our most regular casual), and me. I sat in the taxi's back seat as we wended, unless it was a weekend night, through quiet streets. All the overtime worked on a boat day would earn me an equal amount of compensating time off later in the month.

The sub-title of the book by Mitic/LeBlanc is'The gateway that changed Canada'. Pier 21 changed me too. I started this work when I was only 17. Previously, I knew boyhood in a sheltered suburb; almost all my interests were confined within a square mile or so. Now, boy no longer, I had moved right into the mainstream of the postwar Europe-North America connection. Although my role at Immigration was a very humble one, it was part of a great Canadian enterprise with generations of tradition behind it. The crowds pulsing through Pier 21 expressed the global meaning of Halifax, which my modest efforts now helped to define. As the taxi purred its way up Kline Heights to deliver me, I reflected: Here I was, getting home at a sophisticated hour after midnight, with the rest of the family sound asleep. Having assisted in adding several hundred new souls to the national citizenship, I felt quite important and grown-up about it.

Personalities at Immigration, 1954-55

Hugh Campbell Catering

Eva Dolhunty Catering

Kathleen Houlihan Office Staff

Paul Ivey Catering Cook

Hector Johnson Shipping Clerk

Jimmy Laffen Catering casual

Keith Lohnes Catering cook

Bill Marks File clerk (later Inspector?)

Don Morrison Guard

Mrs. Nelligan English immigrants

Robson family British immigrants

Angelo Rorai Honourary consul for Italy

Ross Taylor Catering manager

H.P. Wade Officer-in-Charge

Bert White Inspector