THE HEART OF HALIFAX
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IF YOU GO:
Group Tours: For excellent service and comprehensive tours visit Senior Discovery Tours: https://seniordiscoverytours.ca/
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Whimsical Art, Halifax Boardwalk
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