Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 4, 2009

The Spirits of Halifax: Memories That Materialize

Time patterns

Implicit (or procedural) memory does not involve the conscious recall of information; it functions on a much deeper level. In many ways it serves as a personal and collective safe harbour where time and events are processed and preserved.

The city of Halifax and surrounding area resonate with memories that are integral to Canadian history and culture. The capital of one of Canada’s “Maritime” provinces — Nova Scotia — Halifax is also the quintessence of things maritime in the Canadian experience. In addition, it is one of Canada’s most important “primary resources” in terms of understanding how this nation evolved and how the elusive Canadian identity — what we have often referred to as a “vertical mosaic” — began to take shape as far back as the 16th century.

In the introduction to her book Frommer’s Halifax, Carol Matthews — a native Nova Scotian, travel and garden writer, colleague, and friend — sums it up beautifully:

History is a big part of Halifax. You encounter it wherever you go. From the noonday gun that’s fired daily (for nearly 350 years!) from Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, to the buildings of the Privateers Wharf, where booty stolen from enemy ships during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 was auctioned to the highest bidder. Haligonians are surrounded by their history: in the buildings where they work, on the streets, and in the harbor that encircles their peninsula. Canadian Confederation was promoted and protested in Province House. Victims of the Titanic disaster are buried in the graveyards. Allied navies in two world wars were serviced from the harbor. International political leaders came to discuss economic strategies at a G-7 Summit.

As a big fan of Halifax, I can personally attest to the feeling of immediacy, the sense of history and timelessness, and the delightful potential for discovery that Carol so aptly evokes in this paragraph.

As a visitor to Halifax — a city surely at the top of the list of the most beautiful harbour cities in the world — you get an almost visceral sense of “being there.” Aesthetically, the city is poetry made manifest. Geographically it is, as described in the Canadian Encyclopedia, “the wharf of North America.”

As you stroll through the engaging streets of Halifax, among its gardens, along its visitor-friendly and rejuvenated harbour, and in and out of its architecturally stunning heritage sites, history becomes palpable. Memories emanate whisper-like from the surroundings. Ask anyone who has visited Halifax and Nova Scotia and they will tell you that it is simply one of the most pleasant and intriguing destinations in Canada.

First Looks

Nova Scotia and Halifax’s strategic location is very apparent from the graphic at the Government of Nova Scotia’s website. You will see how this lobster-shaped (as some refer to it), and peninsular province extends out into the Atlantic like an advance welcoming party to all those arriving by sea to the shores of North America.

They say geography shapes culture and personality; and this may well be one of the contributing factors to the innate spirit of hospitality of Nova Scotians. It is a province of first arrivals; people who have come a long way with great hopes, and often leaving behind great trauma or memories of a very different life. You will notice also why the people of Nova Scotia have such a direct connection with the sea.

As for the capital city of Halifax, the city and its inner harbour provide a welcoming respite for the storm-tossed or, in modern times, those who are looking for an accessible and manageable city in which water (and all activities related to it) is a principal amenity. Its geographical setting also confirms why a harbour setting like this has grand and special spatial qualities.

But my personal recommendation — when you visit Halifax — is to begin by climbing to the top of Citadel Hill where you will get a wonderful 360-degree perspective of the city, its harbour, and the ocean beyond. (The route by road permits full accessibility.) On your way, you will pass one of Halifax’s landmarks, the Town Clock. Built in 1803 in London by the Royal clockmaker and erected October 20, 1803, it was the pet project of “His Royal Highness Field Marshal The Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent,” father of Queen Victoria (“Grandmother of Europe), commander-in-chief of the forces in British North America (before being appointed governor of Gilbraltar) — and a very colourful historic figure.

In 1990 this elegant piece of Georgian architecture (whose mechanism is still intact and operational) was fully refurbished. Not just a clock, of course, it is one of the many historical memory minders in Halifax that recall great times and momentous moments in the New World. So, enjoy the view, set your watch by the Town Clock, and go for it!

Archival Halifax

The second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney, Australia), Halifax has a centuries-old strategic and economic importance, and like other such natural harbours — many great cities of the world are great because they are located on natural harbours — it is a haven for all manner of human activity: travel and tourism; trade and commerce; the arts; entertainment of all kinds; gastronomic delights (lobster!); and cultural traditions that are indigenous, amusing, and enlightening

Halifax is one of the most family-friendly and “lifelong learning” cities in Canada, and there are more sites/sights, sounds, and hands-on experiences to be had in this city than can possibly be mentioned here.

But allow me to introduce you to some of my favourites.

The Historic Properties

These 19th-century waterfront warehouses are one of the best examples of urban renewal and waterfront usage in Canada. Originally, as is the case in many major ports, the area was very much a working port area where the seafaring commerce of the pre-20th century took place. This was also an “exciting” area where many colourful characters mingled: privateers, rum smugglers, and daring ships and their captains who defied Napoléon Bonaparte’s blockade of Britain — a turn of historical events that would eerily be repeated during “Hitler’s War” when Halifax would become the principal home port and life support line for Britain. Today the area has become elegant (but relatively low-rise) office buildings, unique specialty shops and boutiques, excellent (seafood!) restaurants and bars; and a boardwalk where buskers perform in the summer months.

Pier 21

This is probably one of the most historical and poignant locations in Canada in terms of the 20th century. It is in many ways, Canada’s Ellis Island; one in five Canadians have some direct relationship to Pier 21. From 1928 to 1971 more than a million immigrants first set foot on Canadian soil at this spot. It was also the front door to Canada for innumerable refugees, soldiers returning from the war, and of a very special group of “war brides.” The latter were women who had met, fallen in love with Johnny Canuck soldiers stationed in Britain and gave up a life they knew to immigrate to what was often a strange and distant land. For many of them Halifax, was just the first stop and the endless miles of the transcontinental railway that begins here would take them even farther from home.

Halifax has become an important cruise ship destination; dockings increased 130 per cent at the beginning of the new millennium. And, as the photograph above attests, Halifax is visited by many great ships including the magnificent Queen Mary II. Her recent visit was a special cause for celebration and a testament to the great age of ocean superliners such as The Britannia, the first Queen Mary, and the Queen Elizabeth, who delivered their passengers at Halifax.

Which brings me to Samuel Cunard, the so-called “merchant prince of the oceans,” who was born in Halifax. It was here that his great maritime industry began. His company not only operated the finest passenger liners of the times but, amalgamated with such lines as the White Star Line, it transformed navigation of the world’s oceans.

When George W. Bush paid his first official state visit to Canada, he made a side trip to Halifax where he publicly thanked the people of Halifax for their aid and assistance to the (mainly American) passengers stranded in Halifax during the September 11th crisis. Over 50 flights were diverted to Halifax airport and thousands of passengers were accommodated and cared for by the people of Halifax. At Saint Mary’s University, for example, students and staff turned a part of the university into a temporary home for the stranded passengers.

In his speech given at Pier 21 (a very appropriate and symbolic venue for the occasion) the President said,

“Three years ago, Halifax and other towns and villages — from Newfoundland to Manitoba to the Northwest Territories to British Columbia — welcomed, as the Prime Minister mentioned, more than 33,000 passengers on diverted flights. For days after September the 11th, Canadians came to the aid of men and women and children who were worried and confused and had nowhere to sleep. You opened your homes and your churches to strangers. You brought food, you set up clinics, you arranged for calls to their loved ones, and you asked for nothing in return.

One American declared, ‘My heart is overwhelmed at the outpouring of Canadian compassion. How does a person say thank you to a nation?’ Well, that’s something a President can do. And so let me say directly to the Canadian people, and to all of you here today who welcomed Americans, thank you for your kindness to America in an hour of need.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The proud sailing heritage of Halifax and Nova Scotia are the hands-on subject of this restored chandlery and warehouse on the waterfront. It also is a testament to the days when Nova Scotia was one of the world’s foremost shipbuilding and trading colonies. The many exhibits are tangible evidence of a vibrant past that is clearly part of the fabric of Nova Scotian society today.

Moored alongside the museum is the hydrographic steamer Acadia, and in the summer months HMCS Sackville, a survivor of the famous fleet of naval vessels that escorted the lifesaving convoys of ships from Halifax to Britain during the Second World War. From the viewing deck of the museum you can easily imagine the more than 100 supply ships per convoy that were moored in Bedford Basin (as the archival photograph above attests) before making the perilous journey across the submarine-infested Atlantic.

The museum also features an exhibit commemorating the famous Halifax Explosion, the largest man-made explosion in history (after the Atomic bombs dropped on Japan).

On December 6, 1917, two ships in Halifax harbour, the Mont-Blanc and the Imo, collided. The Mont-Blanc was laden with explosives: picric acid, TNT, guncotton, and benzol. Headed for the war in Europe, the ship made a pre-crossing stop in Halifax. But its cargo of doom destroyed most of the city in the explosion and fire that ensued. Before nightfall, more than a thousand people died; and a thousand more subsequently died. Nine thousand more were either injured or maimed; many were blinded by flying glass. It was and still is a terrible day in the history of Halifax. For extensive information on this tragic event visit the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s special Halifax Explosion website.

Halifax and the Titanic

Many have speculated at our fascination with disasters, especially the Titanic. In her short story Le Titanic, Canadian author Gabrielle Roy relates a semi-autobiographical account of when she was a little girl in the middle of a blizzard in the Canadian Prairie. It was the custom at such times for family and neighbours to gather around the kitchen stove and tell stories, often about terrible events that can only be seen in the mind’s eye (especially that of a budding writer). Far from the Atlantic, on a particular stormy night the story begins: “A great ship had perished on the sea, and for many years after, we talked about it at our evening get-togethers in Manitoba. For no apparent reason other than perhaps the whistling wind, people remembered. And the storm that night was so fierce that it may have caused us to remember even more, and to pay greater attention to human misfortune.”

The people of Halifax know the story well; Halifax was the closest major port to the disaster. Of the victims of this almost legendary shipwreck 150 were buried in Halifax. Nineteen are in the Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, 10 in the Baron de Hirsch Jewish Cemetery, and 121 in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Forty-two of the bodies buried in Halifax remain unidentified.

Halifax is a sad heritage site for this epic part of the world’s seafaring history. There are 14 sites devoted to the Titanic in Halifax and five more are located throughout the rest of Nova Scotia. A major exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a focal point for remembering the event. Authentic documents, archival photographs, artifacts, and even a Titanic deck chair are trigger points for one of the best-known stories of human tragedy at sea.

I believe, however, that the city’s history and its concerted effort to remember the past have been important factors in engendering the empathy that is at the core core of the Nova Scotian character.

For more information on the Halifax-Titanic connection, see the Halifax Regional Municipality’s special Titanic webpage and the Nova Scotia Marine Heritage site.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Canada is well-known for its world-class art galleries and this is one of my favourites. The arts flourish in Halifax because it is a very youthful city as well; the students of it’s nine colleges and universities contribute to its artistic essence.

Like so many galleries in its class, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia combines the old and the new harmoniously and seamlessly. Its architecture is a work of art in itself; a serene milieu and public space that honours some of Canada’s and Nova Scotia’s greatest artists, past and present. When you go, may I personally recommend: Alex Colville; Maud Lewis; Mary and Christopher Pratt; and John O’Brien? And be sure to see the recent acquisition Curling on Lake Banook, by Henry Buckton Laurence, which was painted in 1867 and contains the earliest known image of an actual game of ice hockey.

To visit the Gallery click here.

If time permitted…

I would “bend your ear” (as we say in Canadian-speak) about many more grand, poetic, and memorable experiences to be had in Halifax, or during easy day trips from the city to the heartland and rugged coasts of Nova Scotia. Another time perhaps … but let me just put a bug in your ear regarding the following:

The Halifax Public Gardens: A Victorian garden in the heart of the city is very typical of Halifax.

Province House: When you visit this historic building, compare the original architectural drawing tot he finished product. The symmetry and solidity of the building are quite amazing.

Alexander Keith’s Brewery: Nova Scotians are proud of their locally brewed beer. Well I remember singing a few sea shanties with Brian Matthews (Carol’s husband) along with the costumed interpretors in Mr. Keith private pub.

The Citadel: When you visit this star-shaped structure and observe the pomp and circumstance, you will remember the glory days of the British Empire.

St. Paul’s Church: A remarkable structure built in 1750, the architecture of this building will remind you of both England and New England.

The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History: This museum is very much in the the contemporary style of an interactive museum. It is a fun and informative place to spend the better part of the day. And here you will also discopver a lot of about the natural heritage of Nova Scotia.

Amos Pewter Ecomuseum: As part of the “Economuseum” network in Canada, this innovative museum is a hands-on institution that is dedicated to preserving the traditional arts and crafts; in this case, pweter work. It is located in the lovely town of Mahone Bay, on the south shore a short drive from Halifax.

The Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia: Halifax and Nova Scotia are African-American heritage sites. (This topic will be covered in depth in a future Destination Canada report.)

Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory: Rum running is an intriguing part of Halifax history. Learn about it while enjoying a little rum cake and perhaps some liquid rum cake.

Wine Tours: Here is another good example of why Halifax is a great home base for day trips. These tours will take you to the idyllic Annapolis Valley. My favourite is the Domaine Grand Pré nearby the historic Acadian site of Grand Pré.

Lunenburgh and the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic: What can I say? Quintessential Nova Scotian maritime history and culture… in a town designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Another wonderful way of getting a perspective on Halifax and Halifax Harbour is to take the ferry from the harbourfront to Dartmouth and back. Boat tours of the harbour are of course a wonderful, leisurely way to see it all in perspective as well.

A pot pourri of facts about Halifax

(a) Halifax was named after the Second Earl of Halifax whose family name was Montague-Dunk. Fortunately in those days royal or noble titles tended to be used (as opposed to family names). Good thing too.

(b) The harbour at Halifax was first called Chebucktook or Chebucto and human beings were living in this area many thousands of years ago. The Mi’kmaq (pronounced “meegh-mah”) came to the area to hunt and fish in the summer.

(c) In 1713, te Treaty of Utrecht gave the Nova Scotian mainland to Britain. France retained Cape Breton where the fortress Louisbourg (commanding the entrance to the St. Lawrence) was built. The proximity of the French was one reason that a fortified citadel in Halifax was built.

(d) Nova Scotia’s first royal guest was Prince William (future King of England) and his frigate Pegasus. It is said he spent most of his time in the grog shops of Halifax harbour and made “friends” with many ladies of the night as well as a special friend of the wife of a promionent citizen of Halifax.

(e) In 1864 the American Civil War was on. The Confederate cruiser Tallahassee made a daring and successful escape from Wilmington, North Carolina, attacked ships in New York harbour, sank 50 merchant vessels along the coast and harried took refuge in Halifax harbour. Union ships waited outside the harbour for the Tallahassee to emerge. With the aid of a local pilot, it eventually did and escaped. At the end of the Civil War, several Confederate officers settled in Halifax.

(f) Because of the aid and assistance that Halifax’s New England neighbours sent after the Halifax Explosion, each year the people of Halifax still send the finest Christmas Tree to the people of Boston.

(g) Halifax harbours is home to the Canadian navy’s Maritime Command, home to Canada’s Atlantic fleet, and the main base for the Canadian Coast Guard. It also hosts NATO’s Standing Naval Force Atlantic.

(h) In addition to Samuel Cunard, Denny Doherty (The Mamas and the Papas) and Ruby Keeler were born in Halifax.

(i) After leaving her post at the King of Siam’s court, Anna Leonowens (the “I” in “The King and I”) eventually arrived in Halifax where she established the Victorian School of Art and Design. A strong supporter of women’s rights, she became a cause célèbre in Halifax. She eventually moved to Montréal where she died. She is buried in that city’s Mount Royal cemetery.

The Sounds of a Nova Scotian Heritage

Like all of Nova Scotia, Halifax remembers, celebrates, and mirrors a rich cultural life that is distinctly maritime It is a musical culture in both a literal and metaphorical sense. As anyone who travels knows, music and song are memories that emanate from the soul of a people.

After a visit to Halifax and Nova Scotia, chances are that you will return home humming a Nova Scotian tune … or two. Most likely, however, embedded in your musical memory will be the unofficial Nova Scotia anthem, Farewell to Nova Scotia.

This sailor’s lament of 18th-century Scottish origin is typical of the lyrical quality of the culture of Nova Scotia. As the pièces de résistance of the Nova Scotia musical canon, Halifax and Farewell to Nova Scotia will lure you back. It is a siren’s song.

Below are the lyrics to this wonderful song. To hear it sung, click here..

Farewell To Nova Scotia

The sun was setting in the west

The birds were singing on every tree

All nature seemed inclined to rest

But still there was no rest for me.


Farewell to Nova Scotia

The seabound coast

Let your mountains, dark and dreary, be

For when I am far away

On the briny ocean, tossed

Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?

I grieve to leave my native land

I grieve to leave my comrades, all

And my parents, whom I’ve held so dear

And the bonnie, bonnie lass I do adore


The drums, they do beat

The wars, they alarm

The captain calls, we must obey

So farewell, farewell to Nova Scotia’s charms

For it’s early in the morning and I’m far, far away

I have three brothers

They are at rest

Their arms are folded on their breast

And a poor old sailor such as me Must be tossed and driven

On the deep blue sea.


Principal websites to visit

Destination Halifax

Halifax Regional Municipality


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