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refugee worker Nancy Pocock

by Ann Farrell | July 27, 2000

Hers was a very personal social activism – Nancy Pocock helped people to rebuild their day to day lives in new country. She also worked for peace. Most people born in Canada have no experience of civil strife, war, tyranny or persecution. We read about these things in other countries, we see pictures in the media. We take it as “a given” in the world, something that is beyond us.

“Retire: why ever would I?” exclaimed Nancy Pocock one year before she died. Until the end, she never abandoned her dedication to her refugee “family,” who simply called her “Mama Nancy.” In her final hours, as she laid on a stretcher in the emergency room of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital in March, 1998, she struggled to write a letter on behalf of yet another refugee.

The refugees came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, or whatever country where oppression had forced them to flee from home to escape torture, or even death. The fond nickname, Mama Nancy, scrawled on tiny pieces of paper, and carried in the palms of their hands, was often the only thing the refugees brought with them when they arrived in Toronto.

A peace activist, advocate for social justice, writer and jewelry maker, it took some time to come to international fame, the recipient of the Pearson Peace Prize (1987) and the Order of Ontario (1992). She was also a founding member of the Voice of Women for Peace and Project Ploughshares.

Born Nancy Meek in Chicago, her parents brought her to Toronto at age ten. She graduated from the Ontario College of Art (OCA), then known as The Grange, and, in 1942, married a Canadian soldier, John Pocock. Wounded with the British Army in Europe, he returned home a dedicated pacifist. Meanwhile the couple’s daughter Judy had been born. It was not long after that when they began to attend The Society of Friends (Quakers) and became members of Toronto Monthly Meeting, a decision that would shape the rest of their lives, and where she was a longstanding member of the Quaker Committee for Refugees.

In their professional lives, they worked from downtown jewelry studios, and in the late 1960s moved to a house on Hazelton Avenue. It was here that they first opened their house to draft dodgers and deserters coming to Canada rather than fight with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. In 1978, Nancy was awarded the Medal of Friendship from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and today a medical clinic bears her name in that country.

In 1975, only months after the end of the Vietnam war, Nancy suffered a great loss when her husband and partner, in work and in life, Jack Pocock, died. Their life together had served as an apprenticeship for her work thenceforward with refugees from Latin and Central America, and indeed all over the world. It came about when Nancy had visited Dallas, Texas, with the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, because she was interested in advocacy projects. She was told that the U.S. government was turning Salvadoran refugees back at the border and had not considered Canada as an alternative because it believed its cold climate would discourage them from seeking asylum in Canada.

Nancy believed otherwise. She returned to Canada and formed a committee. Soon the refugees began to make their way to her home, which stood, according to her family, “as a beacon.” Nancy was drawn especially to Salvadorans, she said, because “they walked all the way here on their own two feet.” Daughter Judy called her “a supportive, patient, helpful and loving mother – she was just a remarkable, neat, and smart woman.” A woman said to have raised more than $2 million for refugees, a woman with no previous experience in this area who, in her unrelenting pursuit of funding, nevertheless learned to write the sort of proposals that brought her in this sort of money.

To refugees reaching Canada poor and homeless, she will always be remembered as “Mama Nancy,” the woman who opened her heart and her home to them. To Canadians and others, hers was a constant voice in raising consciousness on social issues since the 1960s.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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