Reunion 'bittersweet' for people living in Whitney Pier

·3 min read
Marie Green, left, and Edith Lawrence are two people who grew up in Whitney Pier and stayed behind when so many left for employment in places like Toronto. (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)
Marie Green, left, and Edith Lawrence are two people who grew up in Whitney Pier and stayed behind when so many left for employment in places like Toronto. (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)

Edith Lawrence has lived most of her life in the Sydney, N.S., neighbourhood of Whitney Pier.

In fact, she lives at the same property that has been in her family for decades.

Lawrence once considered moving away, but it was the area's strong sense of community that kept her at home.

"I thought maybe," said the 64-year-old. "All my friends left at high school. I decided to stay and raise my children and be a homebody."

After the rise and fall of Cape Breton's industrial industries in the 1970s and 80s, many of Lawrence's friends left the area as young adults in search of work.

With fewer jobs available than in bigger cities, Lawrence watched as her own children later grew up and moved away.

'I couldn't move anywhere else'

Lawrence said it can get lonely for the people who stayed behind. But she said she has no regrets about staying put.

"I love Whitney Pier and I couldn't move anywhere else," she said. "My mom and everybody — we're all close and we're still here. We still have Sunday afternoon card games and we gather around."

What has kept her family and friendships close in Whitney Pier is a tradition that's been running for nearly 40 years.

The Sydney-Toronto reunion returns every five years as a way to draw people back home.

When it was first held in 1985, the reunion was viewed as a way to reunite former and current residents of Sydney's Black community.

At one time in its history, Whitney Pier was considered to be one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the Maritimes.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of immigrants from Europe, the West Indies, the United States and elsewhere came to Cape Breton to work as labourers employed in the field of iron and steel production.

'Like a roller-coaster'

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

"It's bittersweet," said Lawrence. "It's kind of like a roller-coaster. It's happiness, and then at the end of it, you know that [they're] leaving and gone back home. And that's kind of sad."

Marie Green has lived in Whitney Pier for all of her life, except for two years in Halifax.

She dreamed of studying fashion in Toronto in 1980 after earning her high school diploma.

But life had other plans for Green.

"I fell in love, [and I] decided that I'm not going to go," Green said.

"At one time in my life, I thought it was the wrong choice to stay back home. I am here 60 years later … realizing it was the perfect spot for me to be."

If she had left, Green would have missed out on time with her family and organizing reunion events for others who come and go.

Community roots

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

Travis Toussaint, 63, moved away from Whitney Pier when he was 14.

Even though he's been living away for decades, Toussaint has returned to Cape Breton several times. On Sunday, he took a trip to the Fortress of Louisbourg with his daughters and granddaughter.

Some of his best memories of Whitney Pier were times spent hanging out with his friends and playing baseball and hockey.

A special education teacher living in Ottawa, Toussaint often wonders what he would have been doing had he stayed in Cape Breton.

"[This] is a chance to meet other people who I have not met for years, meet with their families, connect with other family members and introduce my children to their cousins."

One of the biggest changes Toussaint has noticed about Whitney Pier is that many people from its historic communities are now spread out across the greater Sydney area.

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