John LeBlanc, the first president of the Pier 21 Society, was the proudest Canadian I’ve ever known and a dear friend.
Once when I interviewed him he told me about his childhood in Saint-Anselme (now part of Dieppe), N.B. Before he went to high school, he was unable to speak English. He quickly learned the language and became the first male from his village to graduate high school. Not long after in 1941, he joined the Canadian air force and was stationed in the U.K. He became an observer with Bomber Command, flying some 30 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
He recalls the time a couple of incendiary bombs hit his plane and it lost its rudder. Almost miraculously, they managed to make it back to an air base in England. But the real highlight of his war service was meeting a lovely young English lady named Trudy Tansey. They married in 1945.
Back home in Canada, he became a federal civil servant, working in a variety of roles. When he retired in 1982, he was the Director General, Nova Scotia region with the employment and immigration department. He devoted himself to many volunteer roles, including work with the Canadian Paraplegic Association and Real Opportunities for Prisoner Employment. In 1983, a local Mi’kmaw group presented him with a Peace Pipe Award for his work in their community.
In 1971, during his tenure with employment and immigration, Pier 21 closed. For him, it was a deeply personal loss. “I left for overseas from that pier and the ship that brought my wife to this country docked there,” he recalled. “But it also had been a welcoming oasis for thousands of people from many countries.”
He became determined to find a way to preserve the site, from its physical abandonment and from losing its priceless historical legacy. Soon after his retirement, he began spending hours haunting the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. He looked through many old newspapers and contacting museums and libraries across Canada, hoping to find moving and memorable stories about Pier 21. His diligence paid off, as he accumulated enough material to write a book. Editors advised him to find a writer to “fine tune” the story.
Trudy Mitic stepped up. In 1988, they published their book Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada. But LeBlanc wanted to do more done for Pier 21. He joined with several other committed people in the Pier 21 Society, pushing government to make Pier 21 a vibrant National Historic site.
In 1997, when he experienced serious health issues, he reluctantly resigned from the Pier 21 Society. He had great admiration for how Ruth Goldbloom lead the group, applauding her part in raising the funds necessary to transform the pier into “a high-tech” shrine.
LeBlanc died in 2002, so didn’t get to be there in 2010 when government announced that Canada’s newest national museum would be the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. But his extraordinary commitment to turn a derelict pier into a sanctuary has proven to be an ongoing legacy.