Birth of a super city (er, region)

When four became one, and Halifax Regional Municipality was born 

Halifax Regional Municipality was fittingly born on April Fool’s Day 1996, amid rancorous debate over everything from governance to the name. 

HRM formed after a diktat from the government of Dartmouth-mayor-turned-premier John Savage, ordering the amalgamation of the Town of Bedford, the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, and the Municipality of the County of Halifax in a bid to cut costs. 

“When we formed the new Halifax Regional Council back then, they called it the Super City election,” recalls District 2 Councillor David Hendsbee, a previous Halifax County councillor who was also part of the HRM’s first council. He’s referring to one of the goofier monikers floated for the new municipality. (Among our favourites: “Darfordax.”) 

The plan began in 1993. The Savage government hired consultant Bill Hayward to look into the benefits of consolidating all the areas in what is now HRM. Hayward determined it would be financially beneficial to form a new municipal government. 

Amalgamation wasn’t a new idea. The former City of Halifax had happily gobbled up several other communities over the preceding decades, including Rockingham, Clayton Park, and Spryfield. And several small, unincorporated areas coalesced into the Town of Bedford in 1980. 

By 1996, many municipal services were already regional, like waste collection and transit. Bylaws and other rules had to be aligned, as did wages for municipal employees. Some suddenly redundant workers had to compete for their jobs. 

Recently retired CBC reporter Pam Berman, who covered City Hall starting in 1997, recalls those chaotic early days. 

The first Halifax Regional Council formed in 1996 with 24 councillors, not including the mayor. The provincial government has since cut it to 16.

“When I started covering it full time in June, they were still trying to figure out the first budget of an amalgamated municipality,” she says. “They went down from 64 (councillors) of separate units to 24. But even 24 trying to work out a new budget for an amalgamated municipality — it was long and painful.” 

A large group of strangers got a crash course in working together. 

“They didn’t all know each other. If they did, they did from a distance, that kind of thing, and now they had to work together,” says Berman. “Even now, rural doesn’t think urban understands them, and it was worse back then. Everything was an ordeal. They weren’t nasty to each other, but they just didn’t understand each other.” 

Almost three decades later, we’re still not one big happy city region. Dartmouth resident and historian David Jones says Halifax gets too much of the spotlight. 

“I still view myself as someone that lives in Dartmouth, that grew up in Dartmouth,” says Jones, who was in Grade 1 in 1996. “That’s not to pretend that HRM doesn’t exist, but Dartmouth means so much to me. My family has lived here for over 200 years. I love the lakes. I love the downtown. I love going to the Alderney Market. I’m involved with the Dartmouth Heritage Museum. I have real connection to this place. So I worry — as a local historian and as a lifelong resident of Dartmouth — that amalgamation, that Halifax Regional Municipality, has taken away, to some extent, Dartmouth’s identity.” 

HRM’s branding, which puts the word “Halifax” on buses and road signs throughout the municipality, is one oft-cited example. 

Hendsbee says he and his council colleagues are trying to address those concerns. He points to a lack of changes in civic addressing, and the retention of community councils to address neighbourhood-level issues. “We are still trying to promote the over 200 communities that are still part of HRM collective,” he says. 

Jones says HRM needs to remember that collective, yet separate, identity more often. 

“When we have conversations about the siting of different facilities and infrastructure resources, I see a disproportionate leaning towards things being built, positioned and placed in Halifax,” he says. “Even though we’re supposed to be this one big community, I think Halifax still acts a lot like it’s a city and that’s not supposed to be the case. So if we talk about where a new art gallery is going to be or if we talked about a new museum … it doesn’t all just have to be in Halifax.” 

This map shows the former municipal districts within Bedford, Halifax, Dartmouth, and Halifax County, which amalgamated to form HRM in the spring of 1996. It wasn’t a smooth transition.

One ring to rule them all
The cities of Halifax and Dartmouth had aldermen, an older term for councillor, and they represented wards, not districts. 

Several politicians from the former municipal units won spots on the first HRM council: eight returnees from the City of Halifax, six from the County of Halifax, four from the City of Dartmouth, and one from Town of Bedford. Three newbies joined the ensemble. 

Most of the former mayors ended up cashing HRM paycheques. The City of Halifax’s Walter Fitzgerald was the first mayor. Bedford Mayor Peter Kelly took over a councillor position before becoming HRM’s next mayor. Gloria McCluskey, the last mayor of Dartmouth, would take a break from politics before returning as an HRM councillor from 2004 to 2016. 

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