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10.16.2003

Halifaxus Remotus

Now that the IEEE conference has ended, I have a chance to explore the beautiful city of Halifax.

Right, so maybe the IEEE conference was never a huge obstacle to begin with. But at least now I don't have to feel guilty about wandering the city. And thanks to fluke of airline pricing that made it cost less to stay two extra nights, I get to play the tourist.

Halifax is a small and very pretty city on the edge of a big natural harbor. It's built on a piece of land shaped something like the Suez penninsula—downtown is halfway up the Red Sea coast. In normal times, the most prominent thing about the city is the large citadel overlooking the city, as well as a pair of beautiful suspension bridges. Right now (not such a normal time) the most prominent thing about Halifax is the terrific number of downed trees.

Hurricane Juan roared through Nova Scotia just a few weeks ago, and now every major park in the city is closed, the paths blocked by fallen trees. My own ninth-floor window overlooks the block-sized Public Gardens, and out of forty trees there are five that are lying on their sides, torn out by the roots. Practically every tree in the city bears a bright scar of exposed wood from where it lost some branches. I even saw some uprooted parking meters—three feet of steel and concrete pulled clear out of the ground. There's a neat pile of cut branches and storm rubbish by the street in front of every house, waiting to be carted off.

You can see impressive pictures of the storm aftermath for yourself on the local photography site.

Yesterday I visited the Halifax citadel, which sits on a hill overlooking the central city and has magnificent views of the bay. Sadly, Halifax was hit hard by the darkest chapter in Canadian history— the epidemic of horrible sixties architecture—and no one in the fort had the presence of mind to open fire on the builders. So the Haligonian skyline is now a mix of nice old Victorian-style buildings, tall sea cranes, and a bunch of cardboard-colored squat boxes with chocolate brown windows.

The citadel itself is an old-style fort that is currently at version 4.0, the last upgrade taking place in 1856. Unlike the defensive batteries out in the bay, which guarded against Leviathans and pirates, the citadel was designed to protect Halifax from invasion by land. The potential invaders kept changing - first the local Indians, then the French, finally the United States - but the locals found it was always good to have a fort handy.

Now that the American threat has ebbed, the citadel is a museum of sorts, manned by soldiers in dorky kilts who get to shoot a cannon every day at noon. The innards of the museum are interesting and innocuous, except for the weirdly fetishistic Army museum, which has a ‘gun nuts on eBay’ vibe. There is a massive number of guns, medals, muskets, swords, and other hardware arrayed in glass cases, with many of the uniforms displayed on creepy pink-lipped plastic mannequins, all of whom are smiling. The walls have some terribly inept watercolors of Canadian gallantry in battle.

It looks funny for the first few rooms (muskets and sabers), but becomes macabre once the exhibit crosses into the Boer war and the early twentieth century. Canada has a long history of sending its young men off to die pointlessly for the British empire, and that history reaches its apotheosis in World War One. Canada joined the fighting in 1914 and suffered horrific losses—the Newfoundland regiment alone had an 80% casualty rate.

You would think the exhibit would allude to this, but instead it’s an obsessive display of medals, regimental decorations, flags, guns, recruitment posters, and lovingly restored spiky German helmets. The tone even gets a little jocular—look at those funny-looking uniforms, and silly mustaches! More smiling milk-white mannequins.

Halifax was a boom town during both world wars—every Canadian soldier passed through here on his way to Europe. But it was also nearly obliterated towards the end of World War I, in 1917, when an ammunition ship carrying 2,500 tons of explosives collided with a Norwegian freighter in Halifax harbor. The ammunition ship caught fire immediately, but did not detonate for twenty minutes, giving it time to drift all the way to the downtown piers and attract a sizable crowd of onlookers.

When it finally went off, the blast levelled much of the town and killed or injured eleven thousand people. It was the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age. Five years earlier, Halifax had had to scramble to handle the hundreds of bodies brought in after the sinking of the Titanic. Now, in a terrible irony, the city was able to apply its expertise to counting and burying its own dead, and caring for the hundreds who had been blinded by flying glass when they went to watch the burning ship from their windows.

Most historical events in Canada seem to have a really good website associated with them—the Halifax Explosion is no exception, with several good links: There's a nice one-page summary site, a more comprehensive site from the CBC (try to ignore the part about the mini-series) and a good Wikipedia entry:

...Relief still came in from around North America and the world, but most speedy, and most generous was the help from Boston and from the state of Massachusetts to the south. To this day the citizens of Halifax still donate a large Christmas tree to Boston each year. The friendship also explains why even today many Nova Scotians are Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox fans.

Which, with the hurricane, means it’s been an especially rough month for the Haligonians.

I'm going to leave the hurricane damage and all the history behind me today, and drive north to see the highest tides on earth. Like the old proverb says, don't wait for Sunday to visit Fundy!

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