Forming Her Activism


Shirley attributes her core values to her parents, who emigrated from Europe to Nova Scotia and believed the responsibility vested in them was twofold: being Jewish, and being new Canadian citizens, which they considered a privilege. Shirley said their home was always open – "It was something ingrained in me and my siblings".

The origins of the Citizens' Service League date back to the mid-60s when a social worker, Hilda Wright, arrived in Glace Bay from England, sent by the United Church in England on a pilot project to examine the problematic social issues in Glace Bay, a community known far and wide for its coal mining operations and steel mill. Hilda had been a church Deacon in England, but faced considerable social disapproval in the conservative community for being a woman taking on such a role. She would have to prove her worth in Cape Breton, an area with multiple social and economic issues including the impacts of alcoholism, poor housing, and low employment levels.

Shirley recalled that Hilda's dream was to form an organization in Glace Bay to assist members of all faiths to work together in helping those in need, and reinforce their self-worth as citizens working collaboratively to address isolation and social problems. Accordingly, 16 citizens met in 1965 to discuss the most pressing community problems and brainstorm possible actions. It was this meeting that would precipitate the eventual incorporation of the Citizens' Service League (CSL) in 1967, with Shirley Chernin as the first Chair of the Board.

The Glace Bay community development goals proposed then were aimed at including citizens from all backgrounds and increasing their sense of self-worth, and commitment to making change collectively. They were very close to the values Shirley learned growing up in her home, so this initiative was a very serendipitous fit for her.

Early in the life of the CSL, the treasury was almost drained at the same time that citizens were gearing up for action. Bold action was needed:

We went to the Minister of Social Services and—we thought it was a tremendous amount of money!—we asked for five thousand dollars, and he said, "Sure!" We were so angry that we didn't ask for triple or quadruple that amount! But we had forty-four cents in our kitty, so five thousand dollars seemed like a lot. And that was how it all began.

Two projects started immediately under Hilda's indomitable leadership: a clothing depot on the main street run by volunteers from various church groups, and a nursery school for four-year-olds to gain socialization skills that would improve self-esteem. A complex swap of buildings transpired, assisted by the goodwill of their owners, enabling a visible, practical centre to be established that is called simply, Town House.

In 1979, the Nova Scotia Minister of Social Services, Jack McIsaac, handed over responsibility for community service to the Citizens' Service League and Shirley formally accepted the commission. "It was a big deal", she said, and would demand a lot from Glace Bay's citizens.