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by Margaret Deefholts
(For Travel Writers Tales)

Nova Scotia smells of the Atlantic Ocean—there’s a tangy freshness to the air that is different from the pine-scented summer breezes off the Pacific coast. Even though I know that the open sea is quite a long way off, the feeling persists as I stroll the boardwalk overlooking the harbour in Halifax.

2. View across Halifax harbour

It is a glorious summer day with drifting puffs of cloud against a deep blue sky, and on the sun-speckled waters, small sailing boats, with triangular sails, skim past a white lighthouse on the further shore.

1. Whimsical art – Halifax Boardwalk

Kids play in an adjacent park and a mild breeze ruffles the Canadian flag displayed outside a restaurant. I sit at a table overlooking the water, and nibble on one of the city’s specialties – a cinnamon-dusted Beavertail, followed by a dollop of the city’s famous Cows’ ice-cream!

3. My Cow’s ice-cream

The Atlantic has been the life-blood of Nova Scotians over the centuries and, like the ebb and flow of its tides, it has brought both prosperity and adversity to its sons and daughters. Knife-edged winds and cruel seas demand tremendous courage in the face of disasters that can strike without warning. None is more dramatic than the sinking of the Titanic. Although this epic disaster happened over a century ago, emotions of loss and grief remain unaltered by the passage of time, or by divisions of race or creed. It is a universal mourning that we all know and understand.

4. Titanic graveyard memorial to a heroic victim, Everett Edward Elliott who died while at duty on the doomed ship

At the Fairview Lawn Cemetery the headstones of the Titanic plot cast long afternoon shadows across the grassy knoll. A small tablet reads: “Erected to the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the Titanic.” A spray of wildflowers and a small teddy bear in front of the headstone is touching evidence of the sadness that continues to pervade the minds and hearts of Haligonians even to this day.

5. Memorial to the “Unknown Child” two year old Sidney Leslie Goodwin

Records subsequently revealed that the “unknown” child was a 2-year old toddler, Gösta Leonard who, with his Swedish mother, Alma Pålsson and three older siblings, boarded the ill-fated ship in Southampton. The tablet is now a symbolic memorial to all those Unknown Children who perished in the waters off our Atlantic seaboard over a century ago.

6. Maud Lewis

The next morning I am at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, beguiled by an exhibition of Maud Lewis’s paintings. It is incredible that this tiny woman, with her shy smile and self-effacing manner had a soul of such joyous exuberance as to have created a proliferation of folk art: flowers, birds, cats, and brightly coloured scenes of rural Nova Scotia. Her images are primary, almost childish, her brush strokes flat dabs of colour, but they depict everyday moments in a simpler, kinder world: a family on horse and buggy in the snow dragging home a Christmas tree, boats with triangular sails on a ribbon of water with seagulls hovering above the dock, toy-sized village houses with red roofs and white fences in a green meadow with a brown road winding by. Bucolic, peaceful rural moments.

7. Maud Lewis House

8. Maud Lewis Interior Wall

9. Maude Lewis Interior: Stove

Also on display at the Gallery is the small cottage where Maud and her husband Everett lived, and every inch of the wall, doors, the steps leading up to the next floor, and even the stove is decorated with Maud’s “heartwork” – an indoor garden of leaves, flowers, birds and butterflies.

10. Bronze – Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

The Art Gallery is also home to paintings by several Canadian artists, and an entire floor is devoted to Impressionist art including, among others, a still life by Tom Thompson (the Group of Seven). Landscapes by the likes of James Harvey Macdonald, George Pepper and Edith Smith hold me in thrall for much longer than I’d anticipated, and glancing at my watch, I reluctantly leave to continue my exploration of the city.

11. Pier 21: The Faces of Immigration

12. Pier 21: Ship’s Cabin

By far the most memorable and emotionally moving of all the places I visited in Halifax is Canada’s only Immigration Museum at Pier 21. As I walk through the Museum, faces stare back at me—old black and white photographs of men, women and children. A young man wears his cap set at a jaunty angle, but his eyes are apprehensive. A family huddles together as if for protection, the mother wearing a scarf, her overcoat neat, if shabby. A child clings to her skirts. In another shot, a teenager looks directly at the camera, her smile both tremulous and eager.

13. Pier 21: Grandmother pours water for her grandson

14. Pier 21: New Arrivals

These are arrivals from war-torn Europe in the ‘30s and ’40s, waiting for their papers to be processed. They have left behind the familiar landmarks of their lives: their neighbourhoods, their traditions, friends and loved ones. It is a strange new world they are entering with no more than their valises in hand, metal trunks at their feet—and dreams for the future in their hearts.

15. Pier 21: The Doorway to Canada and a new life

Now, over half a century later, I stand in front of the doors, through which more than a million people took their first steps onto Canadian soil. For each one of them it was more than crossing a threshold, it was a huge leap of faith into the future. They came here from every part of Europe, drawn by Canada’s promise of freedom from religious and ethnic persecution, and the chance to start life afresh.

16. Pier 21: Valise and Serviceman’s Uniform

And what of our servicemen who left from Pier 21, and of those who didn’t come back through these doors. Pressing a button below a photo of uniformed men boarding a troopship, I listen to an army officer’s comment: “As we steamed out of the harbour heading towards World War II Europe,” he says, “I looked back at Pier 21 and wondered if I would ever see it again.” He clears his throat and adds. “50,000 of us never returned. I was one of the lucky ones who did.”

Perhaps the most poignant of all was the tale of a Holocaust survivor, who in a quiet moment when he had the WWII deck to himself, knelt down and kissed the floor.

Pier 21 is not just a place to visit. It is a profound and moving experience. Perhaps one that should be on every Canadian’s bucket list for, like me, whoever steps across its threshold will never again take this country’s blessings for granted.



Group Tours: For excellent service and comprehensive tours visit Senior Discovery Tours:

PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts

1. Whimsical Art, Halifax Boardwalk
2. View across Halifax harbour
3. My Cow’s Icecream
4 Titanic graveyard memorial to a heroic victim, Everett Edward Elliott who died while at duty on the doomed ship
5. Memorial to the “Unknown Child” two year old Sidney Leslie Goodwin
6. Maud Lewis
7. Maud Lewis House
8. Maud Lewis House Interior Wall
9. Maude Lewis House Interior: Stove
10. Bronze – Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
11. Pier 21: The Faces of Immigration
12. . Pier 21: Ship’s Cabin
13. Pier 21: Grandmother pours water for her grandson
14. Pier 21: New Arrivals
15. Pier 21: The Doorway to Canada and a new life
16. Pier 21: Valise and Serviceman’s Uniform

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