by Meaghan Beaton
Nina Cohen was a well-known community activist from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, who dedicated herself to many social reform and cultural causes throughout the province from the 1930s-70s. While she was best known for her work with the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum, Cohen was also involved with many local charities including the United Appeal, the Red Cross, and the Council for Cancer Units, and she held executive positions with the Cape Breton Tourist Association, and Sydney’s Business and Professional Women’s Club. On the national stage, Cohen served as National President of Canada’s Hadassah-Wizo from 1960-4. Cohen’s life, I argue, provides a compelling lens through which we can explore issues of social justice, community organization, activism, and gender.
I first came across Nina Cohen during the winter of 2009 when I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation at the Nova Scotia Archives. That project explored the politics of commemoration and state cultural policy through an examination of how Nova Scotia marked Canada’s 1967 centennial. In particular, I looked at memorial projects built under the Centennial Grants Program. That program provided communities with state funds to build infrastructure projects that were proposed and partially funded by communities. In Nova Scotia 35 projects were constructed under this program (representing just a handful of the 2,601 Centennial Grants Program projects undertaken across Canada). These projects, I argue, fundamentally transformed the province’s cultural landscape and reimagined public space.
One of these initiatives was the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum. This is where my work on 1967 sparked my interest in Nina Cohen. Sitting in the archives that winter, I opened a file on the Miners’ Museum and saw a newspaper clipping with the headline “Nina’s Big Day.” Unaware of who “Nina” was and what her big day referred to, I closed the file to make sure I had pulled the correct one. It was clearly marked “Cape Breton Miners’ Museum.” I opened it up again, and I started flipping through piles of clippings that revealed story after story on Nina Cohen.
Cohen, I quickly discovered, played a key leadership role with the Miners’ Museum, a project that memorialized the lives of those coal mining families she grew up with in Glace Bay. From the time the museum was proposed as a centennial project in 1962, until its opening in 1967, Cohen persuaded people to support the project and open their pocketbooks, and she deftly maneuvered the political landscape to ensure that the project was a success. Under her watchful eye, the museum became an important public history site that told the stories of miners’ lives and their work underground. It featured exhibits on everything from unions, to mining equipment, to geology, to life in a community whose economy relied almost exclusively on an extractive resource. The museum also offered visitors the chance to visit the Ocean Deeps Colliery, a former working coal mine, which remains one of the museum’s most popular attractions.
When the museum opened in July of 1967 to great fanfare, the Cape Breton Post branded it as “Nina’s Big Day,” attesting to the key role that Cohen played in the project’s success. While the day’s ceremonies were festive, the museum’s very existence reflected serious concerns about the area’s precarious economy. The museum opened during an intense moment of debate about the highly unstable coal and steel industries which had long served as Cape Breton’s economic engine. For Cohen and other museum supporters, the museum offered a solution – if only a partial solution – to a pressing issue. It was a means to revitalize the postwar economy. In particular, the museum was seen as a bridge that would help ease the transition between Cape Breton’s deindustrialization and the island’s reinvention as a cultural destination.
For Cohen, the museum had to be something more than a simple 1967 commemorative exercise. Rather, it had to capture different experiences that had been largely absent in the public history forum. Cohen recognized the power of people’s experiences. In a 1982 interview, she stated that during the 1960s miners and their communities were “never mentioned in…any of the [country’s] social history.” She saw the museum as a site that brought these stories of labour to the fore, and she worked with the community to give these voices a platform. The project was branded as an important social justice project that safe-guarded workers’ stories and drew attention to previously marginalized voices. It ensured that coal communities’ experiences were documented before all traces of this way of life disappeared – a realistic prospect during deindustrialization. This mandate made the Miners’ Museum a pioneer in Canada’s museological circles. The project was framed by local experiences. During a time when few museums were devoted to community interests, the Miners’ Museum emerged as a model of how to mobilize local experiences in heritage production.
Cohen’s experiences also raise important questions about myriad intersections of class, gender, and ethnicity. Nina Cohen was an upper-class Jewish woman advocating for the working class. She was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate to hold the labour banner in 1960s Cape Breton. Yet, she was deeply moved by the difficult lives led by mining families that she witnessed growing up in Glace Bay. This legitimized her work representing miners, and was a way for her to give back to Cape Breton. Relating a 1965 conversation she had with Abbie Lane of Nova Scotia’s centennial committee, Cohen acknowledged her unusual position representing miners:
“[Lane] said anything you need, anytime you get into trouble or you need a friend you call me because this is going through and it isn’t…only because it’s a very, very exciting project and a very unusual and unique project. She said it’s because you’re a woman and you’re doing it and… you don’t think of a woman doing this for miners which is such a masculine and… rugged occupation. And I had never been down a mine. I have long fingernails and…they don’t go together.”
Despite growing up in the mining town, Cohen understood some of the complexities she faced as the project’s most vocal supporter and as the public face of the project.
In her recent work on Jane Wisdom, Suzanne Morton draws on the work of David Cannadine who states that when biography is done well, the story of someone’s life should “focus more on how their subject reflects their context,” rather than on concentrating on the individual. Nina Cohen’s life and her work with the Miners’ Museum provide a unique entry point into exploring what constitutes community action and how local priorities develop. I hope that by drawing out the details of Cohen’s work with the museum, I am able to shed light on the intersections of gender, community activism, economic development, and public memory.
A native of Cape Breton, Meaghan Beaton is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Canadian History at Western Washington University.