Ruth Goldbloom stands in Nation Builder Plaza in front of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. (photo from CMI at Pier 21)
The museum at Pier 21: National Historic Site opened on Canada Day, 1999. Built to commemorate the almost one million immigrants who passed through Halifax’s Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971, it was renamed the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and designated as a national museum in 2011.
But back to June 30, 1999, the day before it all began. There was a luncheon for the people who had helped turn a shed on the water into a comprehensive museum. Chief among them was Ruth Goldbloom, without whom the museum likely never would have been established. Goldbloom was chair of the Pier 21 Society from 1993 to 1999, and remained active on the board afterward. In 2004, she created and chaired the Pier 21 Foundation, a role that she maintained until just before her death in 2012.
Also present at the luncheon was Rosalie Silberman Abella, who passed through Pier 21 in 1950 as a 4-year-old refugee. In 2004, she became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
At the luncheon, Silberman Abella shared two stories. Her parents were married in Poland the day that the Second World War broke out, she said. Her infant brother was killed, and her father’s side of the family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Her parents spent four years in concentration camps, but both survived. In 1946, Silberman Abella was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
“It was their way of proving to the world – and themselves – that their spirit was not broken,” she said in her speech, referring to her parents.
After years of trying, the Silbermans were granted entry into Canada. Silberman Abella’s father, a lawyer by trade, was not permitted to practise law in Canada until he became a citizen – but he couldn’t wait the five years it would take to become a citizen to work, as he had a young family to support. So, he became an insurance agent, and inspired his daughter to go into law. He died just before she graduated.
“But he knew somehow it would turn out alright for his family because he was confident in Canada’s generosity,” said Silberman Abella at the lunch. “And how generous it has been! The child my parents had to rebuild their hearts in Germany in 1946 became a judge in Canada in 1976. Remarkable.”
Canada Day, she continued, is her birthday. And what better present could there be than coming back to Pier 21?
“I will never forget how lucky we were to be able to come to Canada, but I will also never forget why we came,” she said. “These are the two stories which complete me – one joyful and one painful – and which merge in the next generation into a mother’s irrevocable gratitude to a country which has made it possible for her children to have only one story – the joyful story, the Canadian story, the story that started at Pier 21.”
Every immigrant has their two stories, at least, from before and after coming to Canada. And countless many of these stories would have been lost to time, a bit more detail lost with each retelling, were it not for the efforts of Goldbloom.
Goldbloom was born Ruth Schwartz in New Waterford, N.S., on Dec. 5, 1923. She was known for her family’s hardware store and for her tap dancing.
“This sense of charity and giving back to the community – at all the community fundraisers and anything, she would always dance at those events, so the spirit was always in her,” said Carrie-Ann Smith, chief of audience engagement at Pier 21.
Smith was one of Pier 21’s first employees. She started working there in 1998, before the museum opened, and continued working with Goldbloom until Goldbloom passed away.
“She just stayed, she just kept volunteering. She was constantly here. She never had an office, we always moved her around,” said Smith of Goldbloom. “I miss her so much.”
The idea to turn Pier 21 into a national site started with J.P. LeBlanc, founding president of the Pier 21 Society. LeBlanc was a retired immigration officer with the modest goal of acquiring an Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque to put on the outside of the old Pier 21 building. Before he could complete his goal, however, he developed bone cancer. Around that time, he attended a Dalhousie graduation ceremony where Goldbloom was giving the convocation address.
“This was the ’80s, when people really weren’t looking back and thinking of Canada as a country of immigrants,” said Smith. “And that was the theme of [Goldbloom’s] talk, that we as a country have never really thanked our immigrants. [LeBlanc] knew that he was going to get much sicker, and he was really taken with what she said and how passionate she was about honouring the immigrants that built Canada.”
LeBlanc asked Goldbloom if she would take over the Pier 21 Society, and she did. She began fundraising almost immediately, and decided that a simple plaque wasn’t enough. For years, she worked to create the museum. She traveled the country on her own money, raising awareness and funds about the project, and used her knowledge to lobby the government.
In 1995, Halifax hosted the G7 Summit. Traditionally, the summit’s host city receives a gift and, for Halifax, it was a promise from then-prime minister Jean Chrétien to help build a museum at Pier 21. The deal was, if Goldbloom could raise $4.5 million, then the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government would work together to match that donation.
“It sounds so modest now,” said Smith of the $9 million that brought the museum into being.
When it opened, the museum contained exhibits about the history of immigration in Canada, as well as a database of more than one million immigration records. Smith remembers the very first person who ever asked for an immigration record.
“When I showed her the record, she started crying,” said Smith. “I just didn’t realize how profound the impact of that [immigration record] collection was going to be. Her husband had just died days before, and she wanted to make sure she had the original European spelling of his last name on his grave.”
Marianne Ferguson is another woman who received a surprise on the first day the museum opened. (See “Making Canada home.”) Ferguson had come through Pier 21 in March 1939, a Polish immigrant who had escaped Europe months before the start of the Second World War. While the pier was put to military use during the war, Ferguson volunteered there once it reopened, helping refugees get settled in Canada.
By 1999, Ferguson was an established member of the Halifax Jewish community. She would always ask Goldbloom to help her out at shul, but Goldbloom was too busy. To make it up to Ferguson, Goldbloom planned a surprise for her on the opening day.
“When I got to the pier, I didn’t know what to look for,” said Ferguson. “[Goldbloom] said, ‘I’m not going to tell you, you have to find it yourself.’ And I didn’t know, what am I looking for?… I had my son Randy with me that day, he says, ‘Oh, come here, here’s something from you.’”
It was a quote from an essay Ferguson had written in 1942 as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Canada: “Everyone asked them to take us with them, but that, too, was impossible.” The essay can be found on Pier 21’s website. The “everyone” refers to Ferguson’s extended family, all of whom died in the Holocaust.
Ferguson only had kind words to say about Goldbloom, calling her “the heart of Pier 21.”
Goldbloom would prove that multiple times over the years.
“By about 2002, 2003, it was getting pretty rough to pay the bills,” said Smith. “It was just really a shed on the waterfront, one of the windiest spots in the country, and it was expensive to heat and light … when you’re a National Historic Site, we had that status by then, that just means they can’t tear down the building. That’s all it means, it didn’t come with any funding.”
So, Goldbloom decided to set up a foundation to raise money for the museum. Instead of going door-to-door and asking a million people for $7, she decided to ask seven people for $1 million. These people would be called “Nation Builders.”
“When she had the six Nation Builders, all of her friends chipped in and made her the seventh Nation Builder,” said Smith. “That allowed us to have an endowment. That’s what she wanted – that security for us.”
This year, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, the museum is putting on a special exhibit called Canada: Day 1, which looks at what the first day in Canada is like for arriving immigrants. Since Goldbloom was born in Canada, she never had that experience. But, as she would regularly point out, the only indigenous people in Nova Scotia are the Mi’kmaq – almost everyone living in Canada can connect their history to an immigrant at some point. She dedicated much of her life to commemorating immigrants’ contributions to this country and her story is inextricably entwined with that of Canadian immigration and Pier 21.
Alex Rose is a master’s student in journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He graduated from the same school in 2016 with a double major in creative writing and religious studies, and loves all things basketball. He wrote this article as part of an internship with the Jewish Independent.