Shaped by the sea
Founded in 1749, Halifax is steeped in British military tradition. A magnificent statue of Winston Churchill in front of the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library is a lasting testament to the British connection, and the Union Jack flies on buildings throughout the city.
The city’s protected harbour was ideally suited to stave off invaders. Halifax’s active involvement with naval affairs began in 1758, when a large dockyard area was built. The following year, Halifax operated as a base for British forces attacking the French fort at nearby Louisbourg.
War brought prosperity to Halifax. The Seven Years’ War was the first conflict that escalated the city’s development. The Fortress of Louisbourg is a flourishing historical site visited by thousands of tourists annually.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, privateers used Halifax to unload pirated booty. Permitted to keep a portion of the stolen goods, they shipped the rest to Britain. Harbourside Market at Privateers Wharf is now a popular shopping district. Further south on the waterfront is The Brewery, where gigantic barrels of plunder were transferred to ships Britain bound. Today it is home to The Halifax Farmers’ Market and Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour.
During the War of American Independence, Loyalists Americans who chose not to side with the revolutionaries flocked to the city. Between 1785 and 1792, Dartmouth was headquarters of a whaling company established when Quaker families arrived from the Island of Nantucket. Their history can be investigated at the Quaker House in Dartmouth.
Large numbers of black Loyalists also settled in the area, followed by a contingent of immigrants from Jamaica. Together, they helped create what is now the largest indigenous black community in Canada.
The Halifax Citadel, sits high above the streets of Halifax. Within its ironstone walls and ramparts are a military museum, garrison cells, soldiers’ barracks and a fully restored powder magazine. At the foot of Citadel Hill, The Old Clock Tower is the city’s most distinctive landmark, built by the punctuality-conscious Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1803.
Halifax has witnessed several marine disasters. After the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, The Mackay-Bennett, a Halifax-based cable ship, recovered 306 bodies, many of which were buried at sea. Of the 209 bodies brought to Halifax, 150 are interred in city cemeteries.
The Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 leveled most of the Halifax peninsula when a French munitions ship and a Norwegian vessel collided in the harbour. More than 1,700 people died and 4,000 were injured when the French ship exploded. It took years for the city to recover.
The first area of the flattened city to be rebuilt was a neighbourhood called Hydrostone. Distinguished by its unique stone buildings, the upscale neighbourhood now functions as small family homes and the popular Hydrostone Market .
In addition to the Halifax Explosion, the waterfront has had to recover from the wear and tear caused by World War II, when the area teemed with servicemen and women going to war, and the thousands of immigrants fleeing the conflict in Europe. No soldier left Canada to fight without passing through the city’s port.
In 1928, the first of thousands of immigrants streamed through the doors of the waterfront warehouse called Pier 21, recently designated a national heritage site.
Nova Scotia’s native people are the Mi’kmaq (pronounced Mih-mah and sometimes spelled Micmac). The Europeans who landed on the shores of Eastern Canada were British, Irish, Scottish and German, and the linguistic roots of these nationalities linger on. From the elongated vowels of the South Shore of Nova Scotia (where Boston is pronounced “Bahstan”) to the lilt of Irish in which the word tourist is pronounced “tore-ist”, many accents mingle to create colourful interpretations of the English language.
A quick flip through the Halifax phone book will reveal a large section under “M” for Macdonald, McDonald, MacDonald, MacKay, McIsaac, MacLelland, McNeil, MacDougall and even a few Macbeths, among others. A proliferation of French surnamesBoutilier, Gallant, Fougere, Boudreau, Deveaupoints to the remains of the Acadian Expulsion, when huge numbers of French were forcibly removed from the province, to settle along the Eastern coast of the U.S. and as far away as Louisiana.
Some of Halifax’s oldest families descend from men and women who fled slavery in the U.S. via the “underground railroad”, arriving during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Surnames like Downey, Brown, and Carvery belong to people who settled in Africville, a once thriving community on the southwest shore of Halifax’s Bedford Basin. This black community, after being denied sewage, garbage and water service by the city, was summarily relocated in 1968 to the outskirts of Dartmouth, in a neighbourhood known as Preston. Africville is now a little-used green area called Seaview Park. The Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia traces the movements of this community.
A small but vital group of Buddhists, mostly from the United States, but with European and Canadian members, followed their Tibetan-born leader, Trungpa Rinpoche, to Halifax in the l980s. This community has made a significant contribution to the city, providing a thriving alternative middle school along with top-flight delis, restaurants and bookstores. At the Shambhala Centre is one of the finest Tibetan-style temples located outside Asia.
When visitors to Halifax hear the phrase “CFA,” they’ll learn it’s short for Come-From-Away. This describes all the people who have chosen to live in a city coming to terms with an expanding reputation as a seaside paradise. Halifax is struggling with its status as a clean, quiet and gorgeous place and its wider perception as a top-dollar tourism and commercial venue.
There’s little doubt the city, and its people, will rise to the challenge.