Once the city’s soul—the Halifax Harbour is now a mystery

Photo: Tracey Robertson

Kelly Schnare is heading out for a trip to the blue barge on the Bedford Basin.
Schnare’s father spent a night inside this barge with friends once. That was in the 1960s when a commissionaire was on staff 24/7. This barge has been in the basin since 1958, and it’s part of the history of the harbour and the basin. Yet most residents don’t know why it’s there and what happens onboard.
“It was always a mystery to me growing up,” Schnare says of the barge.
Officially, technicians on the barge calibrate acoustic instruments used on navy, coast guard, and commercial ships. Not many people get to visit this barge; the work is top secret. But Schnare says the barge itself remains an important part of our local waters, including the basin, which she says should be more in the collective mind’s eye of residents.
But that visit to the barge wasn’t the only story connected to the harbour that Schnare’s father shared. He told her stories of spending time on or near the harbour waters. He fished in the waters in Birch Cove, near the present-day Chinatown restaurant, where he grew up. He picked up trash and collected mussels. But he told his daughter he stopped doing all those things when he was about 12. After that, the harbour almost seemed off limits and he hasn’t interacted with it since.
“I don’t know if he got too old, or it got too polluted, but I know an entire generation hasn’t touched the harbour,” Schnare says. “I never interacted with the harbour growing up, except to collect garbage on McNab’s Island.”
Schnare serves as the secretary on the executive committee of the Atlantic chapter of Sierra Club. Her work focuses on water and waste education. Halifax Harbour represents to her a perfect chance for people in Nova Scotia to reclaim their waterways. Hearing her father’s stories and wondering about the harbour on her own inspired Schnare to help develop Re-Imagining Atlantic Harbours, a Sierra Club initiative designed to get residents thinking about what the harbour means to them.
With the help of volunteers, Schnare developed an awareness program that will ask residents to create and contribute works of art inspired by the harbour. “The program has the capacity to get photos, stories, music, and visuals, so I really wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” she says.
One of the first artists to join in was Joel Plaskett, a self-described land lover, who grew up in Lunenburg, but always had an association with the coast. He submitted his 2012 tune “Harbour Boys”, to the project.
In a promotional video for the project, Plaskett says while he grew up near harbours from Lunenburg to Halifax, he never really thought about his connection to them: “Being around [the harbour] shapes you and it’s informed my writing in ways I am not even sure of…I’ve always been more comfortable hanging out inside at a pub or with my friends at a house party. The older I get the more I realize the natural world and the things we take for granted are being eroded. My hope for Halifax Harbour, and in general for the environment, is that we hold on to our access to it and that it’s something to be shared, not owned.”
Schnare has also connected with visual arts and associate professors from NSCAD. “There is no shortage of artists who are interested,” she says. “The local scene is a vibrant one.”
The program will also include a waterfront kiosk that will help passersby understand the ecosystem of the harbour. The kiosk, which will be located near the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, will include scientific details such as the species living in the harbour, the water’s temperature, and what lies in the water just beneath their feet. The kiosk will also include a secchi disc, which when lowered into the harbour, will help measure depth and transparency of the water. Schnare says she’d like to eventually see kiosks in Dartmouth, Bedford, and Lunenburg.
On the website visitors can browse and download those artistic materials when they upload a scientific observation about the harbour, for example, what they learned at the kiosk. A video for Plaskett’s “Harbour Boys” is on the site, too.
“It’s action-based learning,” Schnare says. “It has the potential, in the future, to generate a better understanding of the science.”
Schnare says her father now lives near the water on the South Shore, where he often sails. “I’m sure he would love to go swimming at Chinatown again,” Schnare says. “But if he’s going to go swimming he’s going to do it an hour away where he lives. It’s a choice he has. He’s worked his whole life to get an hour away. But not everyone has that luxury of driving an hour to get to the ocean.”
Schnare herself is learning more about the harbour, too, while working on this project. And she has her own vision.
“I would like to see bicycle trails, water taxis, and observation stations,” she says. “Less industry, more parks and recreation areas. I would like to know this wasn’t a onetime thing, as well. I’d like the opportunity to do this more, with less barriers. To make it more accessible to everyone.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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