Not the city I knew

Standing in an icy northeasterly on the balcony of the 11th-floor condo that Penny and I recently bought near Windsor and North streets, I can see almost the entire sweep of the harbour: the cars and trucks pushing both ways on the MacKay Bridge in the north and Macdonald Bridge in the east, the ferries and ships going about their business and, in the south, the high-rises on the downtown waterfront, skyscraping cranes, the grey-green mound of Point Pleasant Park, and if I lean out over the railing, even a stretch of open Atlantic.
It’s the 46th year since we moved here from Toronto. With combinations of our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren, we’ve lived at nine Halifax addresses. We’ve also gone to work anywhere from one year to five at Port Shoreham in Guysborough County, St. Andrews in New Brunswick, and Saint John, Moncton, Montreal, and Vancouver. While we enjoyed all those places, the strange magnetism of Halifax kept bringing us back.
Now, our wandering is over. We’re both over 80, this is the last home we’ll ever have, and we never tire of that terrific view. The whole scene, including the ambulances, fire engines, and police cars that scream up and down Robie Street, at last brings into focus why I’ve come to love this city.
When we arrived, Halifax was sulking through the dank wintry April of 1971, and did not strike me as at all lovable. Despite being an international port with five universities, it felt less like an open-minded, generous, and cosmopolitan city than a stodgy provincial town. A big Truro.
It was only slowly emerging from times when Catholics and Protestants jealously guarded their separate domains in education and separate rights in politics; when chartered accountancy barred Catholics and Jews, and the Halifax and Waegwoltic clubs barred Jews; when professors viciously ridiculed young women to discourage them from continuing at medical or law school.
At lunchtime, hordes of men downed draft beer and cheap steaks at joints like the Derby Tavern on Gottingen Street, but never in the company of women. Bars refused service to homosexual couples, who risked bloody or even fatal beatings if they walked downtown at night.
Remembering a visit in the early ‘80s, Newfoundland actress Cathy Jones said she once called it, “Halifax: City of the Living Dead. . . We thought of it as horrible: dull, uptight, racist, boring, redneck.”
I wouldn’t have gone quite that far, but the city certainly struck me as more inclined to give thumbs-down than to offer high-fives. About newcomers, it was wary. Having landed a job as host of CBC Television’s talk show, Gazette, I disgusted loyal viewers not because I was a nervous and fumbling interviewer, which I was, but because I sounded and somehow looked like a Toronto guy. “Who is that shaggy-haired idiot now trying to do an interview?” ran a typical complaint to the CBC switchboard. “Looks like some little old lady from Toronto.”
But in addition to suspicion, a stifling sameness characterized much of Halifax life. The city’s only diversity seemed to lie in its crazy weather. Its roughly 260,000 people included a small contingent of kicked-around blacks, but nearly all the others were descendants of settlers from the British Isles who arrived generations ago. They were overwhelmingly dominant, thank you very much, and seemingly content with that. Among more than 200 local restaurants, few served anything other than the blandest Canadian “home cooking” or greasiest Chinese-Canadian chow.
While still no hotbed of multiculturalism, Halifax has blossomed as a mecca for foreign students, unlike in the ‘70s, you actually see plenty of mixed couples on streets and buses. Between 1975-76 and now, the number of African students at Saint Mary’s University alone, jumped from one to 252, and of Chinese from zero to more than 900. Indeed, foreigners among SMU’s students, now amount to least 2,350, a full third of the total. Just from 2010 to 2015, the number of international students throughout Halifax shot from 3,304 to 5,832. Most come from Africa, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and West Indies. Upon graduation, some of the savviest serve as class valedictorians, or stayed to help others from overseas settle here as well.
If the universities contribute to the international atmosphere, so do the restaurants. We’ve got Thai, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indochinese, Indian, Turkish, Lebanese, Persian, Latin American, Greek, French, and Italian eateries. Some of the best feature meat and produce fresh from Nova Scotian farms, and seafood straight from the Atlantic. The variety increased, but so has the quality. Compared to the unpalatable grub the old restaurants served, today’s offer gourmet fare. Unlike the slop our taverns once sold, the furiously busy kitchens of our better pubs make hundreds of truly tasty meals daily.
Although it was as long ago as 1984 that the Waterfront Development Corporation completed the 2.8-km harbour-side boardwalk, I still see it as a marvellous harbinger of “the new Halifax.” That June, the first tall ships parade brought some 50 topsail schooners, brigs, brigantines, barques, barquentines, and towering square-riggers from more than a dozen nations. None anchored out in the harbour because all could tie up beside that great wide boardwalk and, for five fabulously sunny days, hundreds of young crew, striking in their homelands’ naval uniforms, mingled with thousands of us happy locals, and tourists from foreign ports and throughout Canada. Sun-tan oil, hotdogs, perfume, expectation, and romance scented the air, and it all added up to one long, joyous, international festival. Nowhere else in the world was there a better place for it.
But in the early ‘70s multinational blowouts in Halifax were still unheard-of. We had no International Tattoo (founded in 1979), Atlantic Film Festival (1980), International Buskers Festival (1986), Atlantic Jazz Festival (1987), or Pride Festival (1988). While only 75 took part in that first march, and some wore bags over their heads for fear of being identified, more than 2,800 marched openly in 2016, and the cheering spectators numbered nearly 100,000.
In 1993, Manhattan-based fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar pronounced Halifax “the very anatomy of a hip city.” Other magazines in both the U.S and Britain touted its “exploding music scene.” Owing to its indie rock bands, Halifax was even called “the next Seattle.” Night life boomed beyond midnight as never before, and loyal Haligonian John DeMont reported in Maclean’s that it had inexplicably started to hum with energy and become “a boisterous good-time city of the moment.”
Then, in 1995, a show that would have been unimaginable in the Halifax I knew in the ‘70s happened in a renovated warehouse down by the boardwalk. American poet Allen Ginsberg, the controversial, widely reviled “voice of the beat generation,” performed alongside Ashley MacIsaac, the sensational young Celtic fiddler from Cape Breton, whose repulsive onstage antics would soon make him more famous than his phenomenal playing. Their weird gig was a tribute to Rangdrol Mukpo, who had just succeeded his deceased father, Chogyam Trungpa, as head of the wordwide Shambhala Bhuddist network.
Two decades before, Trungpa had inexplicably transferred the headquarters of Shambhala International from Colorado to Halifax, and hundreds of the movement’s adherents, most of them well-educated Americans, followed him to form the world’s biggest community of non-Asian Bhuddists. Quietly enriching the intellectual, educational, cultural, commercial, business, and family life of Halifax, they proved to be one of the most constructive collections of come-from-aways the city has ever known.
If Ginsberg and MacIssac aroused the locals’ amusement, the G-7 economic summit a month later, aroused the attention of the entire world. Meeting every year in a different city, the summit enables the supreme leaders of the seven most economically advanced nations to discuss face-to-face the economic, political, and other crises that threaten global security. For this one, writer Stephen Kimber reported, “Halifax hosted a massive, continuous downtown street party for residents and visitors, including thousands of international government officials and media.”
It’s impossible to list all the scenes, sounds, and changes that swim in my head and finally make me feel good about the city. On the September morning in 2003 after Hurricane Juan smashed it from stem to gudgeon, I was one with the women whose tears streamed as they stumbled among enormous and dearly beloved trees that crashed to the pavement. Sad, yes, but I find nothing sad, despite treasuring the city’s historic buildings, about the unprecedented boom that shoots residential towers skyward and promises to revive downtown. Raise a glass to those construction cranes! And Agricola and Gottingen streets, for decades the heart of our most depressed and least desirable neighbourhood, now sprout cafes, microbreweries, and fashionable restaurants, and inspire real estate agents to tout “the trendy North End.”
Then there are the cruise ships. In the 1980s, not one arrived here, nor had the Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21 or the Seaside Farmers Market. Now, the ships keep coming from May 1 to Oct. 31. More than 130 of them tie up beside the market and museum, and spill a quarter-million holidaying foreigners per season onto the boardwalk and nearby streets.
But for sheer sea-going beauty, no cruise ship matches Queen Mary 2, flagship of the Cunard Line. She’s the tallest, longest, widest, strongest, and fastest ocean liner ever built. She’s also a direct descendant of Britannia, which in 1840 made the first transatlantic crossing of a ship under steam power alone. That led to its builder, Halifax-born Samuel Cunard’s founding of the first back-and-forth, scheduled transatlantic service.
QM2 repeated Britannia’s voyage just two years ago to celebrate its 175th anniversary. That evening, July 10, Penny and I were at the Halifax Jazz Festival near the boardwalk when the Voice of Cuba Orchestra launched a swinging-like-crazy concert. Just as the setting sun cast a pink, glow over the whole harbour, QM2, as though answering a curtain call, sprang a magnificent surprise. Her surge-slicing bow magically emerged from the north, and then her whole length slid by, she’s three times bigger than the Titanic was. Most of her 2,600 passengers waved and waved at us from her decks.
Bound for Boston, she gave us a series of deep, deep, deep down farewell blasts, and all of us in the jazz crowd jumped up to applaud, and the Cuban orchestra joined the supremely bass horns of the great ship to make one of the strangest, funniest, and most glorious moments of music I have heard in all my eight decades. Only in Halifax, I thought, only on a soft summer night in Halifax.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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