Ninety-four years ago, Halifax was a major shipping port in the British war effort. Ships from Canada and the US would steam into Halifax every week, in advance of an Atlantic convoy. The ships would find the world’s second deepest harbour snug, cozy, and crowded, and their sailors would find a few day’s entertainment on Halifax’s seedy waterfront.
They were waiting for their military escorts.
When all was assembled and ready, the convoys would run the German U-Boat gauntlet enroute to Britain, an epic cat-and-mouse game that still gives me the chills, almost a century removed. The Merchant Navies were the unsung heroes in both World Wars.
On December 6th, one such vessel entering Halifax Harbour was the Mont Blanc, an unmarked French munitions ship. In its hold sat 2,600 tons of explosives, vital to the British was effort. Through a series of tragic circumstances, a Norwegian ship called the Imo smashed into the starboard port of this French transport, which caught fire. Hundreds of Haligonians watched from the piers as Canadian sailors tried desperately to extinguish the blaze, and pull the ship away from the civilians.
At 9:04am, Halifax was destroyed.*
The explosion was the greatest the world had ever seen, and it retained that dubious honor until Hiroshima in 1945. A, 18-metre tsumani was created in Halifax Harbour, washing many into the frigid waters. The Mont Blanc was blown into little pieces, red hot shards falling like lava clear across the city. Halifax’s entire north end was leveled. More than 2,000 Haligonians were killed, and 9,000 more were wounded. An estimated 6,000 were disabled for life. A Mi’kmaw settlement on Dartmouth’s waterfront was obliterated.
But it could have much, much worse. Halifax was built around a drumlin, a large hill in the city’s centre. The shock wave screamed across the north end, encountered Citadel Hill, and was redirected towards the sky. Otherwise the south end would have been devastated, and the death toll doubled or tripled.
On December 7th, a blizzard (40 cm) made a horrible city even worse, and the death toll mounted. Fires raged. More than 6,000 people were homeless.
When the trains could run again, medical relief flooded into Halifax. Among the most welcome was a train filled with doctors, nurses, medics and supplies that chugged up through the blizzard from Massachusetts. To this day, Nova Scotia donates the province’s best Christmas tree to our friends in the Boston states for their honor and compassion in a time of great sorrow. It becomes that city’s official tree in a wonderful Boston Commons ceremony.
On this day in 1989, Algerian-Canadian Marc Lepine walked the corridors at École Polytechnique, shooting women indiscriminately with a legally-obtained semi-automatic rifle. He killed 14 women, and wounded another 10 women (and four men) before taking his own life. He claimed that he was fighting feminism.
It took just 20 minutes to destroy thousands of lives.
In Canada, this is a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. The École Polytechnique Massacre resulted in much tougher federal gun laws, although statistics still show that violence against women is still epidemic, in Canada and everywhere else. The truth is horrible.
Our current Prime Minister is dismantling our tough gun laws.
In Canada, December 6th is a very sad day.
* Burden of Desire, Robert MacNeil’s first work of fiction, is set in Halifax in 1917. So is Barometer Rising, Hugh MacLennan’s landmark Canadian novel.