Thinking About the Halifax Explosion in a Time of Climate Change

One hundred years ago today the Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax harbour, killing approximately 2,000 and leveling part of the city. In commemoration of this terrible event Jacob Remes has provided us with a post that contextualizes the explosion within the connected discourses of climate change and disaster history.

By Jacob Remes

On December 6, we will commemorate the centennial of the Halifax Explosion. A hundred years ago, the Norwegian merchant ship Imo, contracted to Belgian Relief, and the French munitions ship Mont Blanc collided in the narrows of Halifax harbour. The collision sparked a fire on the Mont Blanc, the fire sparked an explosion, and the explosion destroyed roughly a quarter of the city, maimed and blinded about 9,000 people, and killed just under 2,000 more.


A view across the devastation of Halifax after the Halifax Explosion, looking toward the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Source: NSARM, Negative Number DNDHfxExplosion-2.

As the centennial of the Explosion approached, the world seemed to be beset by an unusual number of disasters. Just since the start of the fall term, Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston; an earthquake in central Mexico killed 370 people just a week after a stronger earthquake had killed almost 100 in Chiapas; wildfires terrorized swathes of California; Hurricanes Irma and especially Maria swept across the Caribbean, devastating Barbuda, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico; and an earthquake in Iran killed about 540 people. (There were almost certainly other disasters that I am leaving out.) What has the Halifax Explosion—“the biggest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb,” we are told, over and over—to do with these apparently natural disasters? As disaster scholars have been arguing for decades, there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Hazards, of meteorological, seismological, or human origins, intersect with human-built society to create disaster. While there are certainly differences among disasters, there is much in common between a hurricane and a munitions ship explosion.

The Halifax Explosion is usually told in the context of Canadian history. It was, as several textbooks and syntheses tell us, when “the war came home.” For a generation familiar with the Heritage Minutes, it is a story of heroism, when Vince Coleman sacrificed himself at his telegrapher’s station waiting for a passenger train to acknowledge his warning. Others have told the story as part of Maritimes history, or naval history, or social work history, or labour history.

When we tell the story today, we cannot help but tell it in a time of climate change. Continue reading

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The David Alexander Prize, 2018

The David Alexander Prize is awarded annually for the best essay on the history of Atlantic Canada written in course by an undergraduate student in any university.

Conditions: Entries must be undergraduate essays between 1500 and 5000 words in length on some aspect of the history of Atlantic Canada, written in English or French. They may be research, interpretive or historiographical efforts. The author must be part-time or a full-time undergraduate student in a degree programme at an accredited university or college. The essay must have been written to meet the requirement of an undergraduate credit course during the 2017-2018 academic year. Previous winners of the Prize may not compete.

Submissions: Entries shall be submitted by course instructors no later than 30 June 2018. No instructor shall submit more than two entries. Essays must be typed neatly and should not bear the instructor’s comments or a grade. Entries should be sent to The Secretary, Acadiensis, Campus House, University of New Brunswick, P.O. Box 4400, Fredericton, N.B.  E3B 5A3.

Adjudication: Entries will be judged by a panel of three distinguished historians. The winner will be announced in the autumn of 2018. No runners-up or honorary mentions will be designated.

Prize: $400.00.

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Matthew Hayday reviews Meaghan Elizabeth Beaton’s The Centennial Cure: Commemoration, Identity, and Cultural Capital in Nova Scotia during Canada’s 1967 Centennial Celebrations

Meaghan Elizabeth Beaton. The Centennial Cure: Commemoration, Identity, and Cultural Capital in Nova Scotia during Canada’s 1967 Centennial Celebrations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

By Matthew Hayday

It seems entirely fitting to review a book about the 1967 Centennial celebrations as the events of Canada 150 draw to their close. Reading Meaghan Beaton’s The Centennial Cure, one cannot help but be struck by the differences between how Canadian governments and citizens marked the 100th and the 150th anniversaries of Confederation. There was little debate, in the years leading up to 1967, about whether the centennial of Confederation should be celebrated, and the idea that substantial sums of money could be dedicated to these events in the interests of “nation-building” was widely accepted. As Beaton shows, through a series of case studies of projects across Nova Scotia, it was the question of how best to make use of Centennial largesse that created debates and controversies. Her analysis convincingly demonstrates how the planning of the Centennial projects sparked controversies over cultural changes in Nova Scotia, tensions over modernization initiatives, and debates over the economic future of the province and its communities. Moreover, she highlights both the possibilities and the limitations of how far Centennial monies could go to transform a province that was struggling with significant economic challenges, in light of broader nation-wide considerations.


Meaghan Elizabeth Beaton. The Centennial Cure: Commemoration, Identity, and Cultural Capital in Nova Scotia during Canada’s 1967 Centennial Celebrations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

Two case studies – one of a successful initiative, one of a failure – stand out as particularly strong illustrations of both the transformative potential of a Centennial project, and its limitations. While scholars such as Jonathan Vance and Helen Davies have drawn our attention to the high-profile Centennial initiatives and projects intended to foster a national culture, Beaton enriches our understanding of how individual communities made use of the per capita matching grants available from the federal government to further their local needs. In the case of Cape Breton, these funds were devoted to creating a Miners’ Museum, commemorating and celebrating the proud local history of an industry which was in decline, and likely to end soon. The choice to invest in this museum, which seemed to signal the inevitability of the coal industry’s demise, was greeted with some ambivalence. Yet the museum’s chief organizer, Nina Cohen, was able to frame this as a project that could draw tourism to the island. This shift to an economy increasingly reliant on tourism was a source of province-wide tensions, but it was ultimately accepted in the context of this Cape Breton Centennial initiative.

Plans for a dynamic, high-profile aquarium in Halifax, which would both draw tourists and become a centre for scientific research and development, on the other hand, became mired in debates of the Centenary committee and Halifax city council, and ultimately foundered due to skyrocketing projected costs. The Halifax aquarium also underscored the limits of how much the federal government was willing to spend on centennial projects to spur regional development. Efforts to convince Ottawa to top up its contributions were rebuffed, and Halifax’s centennial money ultimately ended up being diverted to a new swimming pool already under construction. Continue reading

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Allan J. MacEachen and Cape Breton Island: A Transient Legacy?

by Lachlan MacKinnon, Will Langford, and Andrew Parnaby

Warm tributes for Allan J. MacEachen poured forth after his death — from politicians, journalists, and colleagues. Prime Minister Trudeau was especially effusive.  And rightly so.  MacEachen’s parliamentary career and legislative record was unrivalled in 20th century Canadian political life – “peerless” in the prime minister’s words.  He was also deeply loved by the people of Cape Breton.

Yet amidst the tributes and reminiscences, contrarian Parker Donham struck a somewhat discordant note via Twitter: “AJMcE’s impact on #CB monumental but transient.  Coal. Steel. Heavy H2O. Sheep. NEP. All gone.  Was self-reliance also a casualty?”


Finance Minister Allan J. MacEachen, giving the budget speech in 1981. (Fred Chartrand. / Canadian Press file photo)

Many of the tributes stressed Allan J’s national contributions – namely universal healthcare.  Others highlighted the ways in which he stuck up for the region.  Indeed, an official obituary described how MacEachen’s “first-hand exposure to the vulnerability of working families in early 20th-century Canada” prompted him to battle for miners’ pensions, minimum wage reforms, and other areas of social spending.

Certainly, these accomplishments had a nation-wide impact, but what of his contributions to the island, specifically? Were these impacts, as Donham asks, transient?

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Jason Hall reviews Jeffers Lennox, Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763

Jeffers Lennox. Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

By Jason Hall

In Homelands and Empires, Jeffers Lennox posits that “[c]ompeting notions of territory and environment, manifested in European ideas of empire and Indigenous protection of homelands, shaped the kinds of military, economic, and cultural interactions that took place in the Northeast” from 1690 to 1763 (13).  Lennox successfully supports this intriguing thesis with nuanced arguments grounded in detailed archival research.  His  book is composed of six chapters that are organized around major geopolitical and military events such as William Phips’ capture of Port Royal (1690), the fall of Port Royal (1710), the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1725-1726, the founding of Halifax (1749), the 1750-1755 boundary negotiations between France and Britain, and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

homelands and empires

Jeffers Lennox. Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

While many historians have structured studies as if imperial projects quickly overshadowed or erased Indigenous homelands in the Northeast, Lennox reveals that Indigenous homelands not only persisted as the dominant geographic entity between 1690 and 1763, they were integral to French and British understandings of the region.  At times, European officials even used the presence of Indigenous homelands to define and defend their imperial claims from rival European nations.  Lennox also shows that during most of this era, the imperial “fictions” that cartographers boldly projected onto maps were barely tangible beyond dilapidated forts and scattered settlements, and Europeans often lacked sufficient geographic knowledge to manifest imperial claims through diplomacy or force.  In contrast, the Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki knew their homelands intimately.  Their superior geographical knowledge helped them defy imperial expansion and remain the strongest power throughout large tracts of the region.  

This book is one of the best examinations of historical cartography ever written for the Northeast, and the 41 maps reproduced in the text provide a rich visual complement to Lennox’s carefully crafted arguments.  His investigation of the intricate relationships among specific maps and diplomatic negotiations is fascinating.  Moreover, Lennox’s discussion of how French and British popular magazines disseminated geographical knowledge and garnered support for imperial expansion, skillfully situates cartographic projects within a transatlantic context and enriches our understanding of how literate Europeans perceived and manipulated North American geography.

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ACS Conference Deadline Extension!

Call for Papers: Atlantic Canada Studies Conference
“Coastal Exchanges: Networks and Influences”
May 4-6, 2018

 The Departments of English and Theatre, History and Classics, Politics, and Sociology of Acadia University invite proposals the 2018 Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, to be held at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada on May 4-6, 2018.

For several decades now, scholars have been attuned to Atlantic Canada’s place in the Atlantic World, and this water-based framework can be extended downward into local economic, social, and cultural networks in the region. Rivers, straits, and bays were the transportation infrastructure of the region, well into the 20th Century. Did these networks and influences survive the triumph of land-based transportation?

Themes and ideas that this conference addresses include:

  • Indigenous narratives
  • Naming and claiming space
  • Linguistic and cultural expression
  • Literary and visual arts
  • Social capital networks within and across regions
  • Political literacy and public opinion
  • Immigration and outmigration
  • Demographics
  • Gender and generations

The deadline for submission of proposals is 24 November 2017. Proposals should be less than 250 words, and the author should include a brief biography or c.v. Proposals for panels or workshops are welcome. While the selection of papers is rigorous, the conference has an impressive history of bringing together internationally-recognized academics, junior scholars, and independent researchers in productive and provocative sessions. Registration fees will be waived for graduate students, and students who are presenting can apply for financial assistance.

For more information, contact

Dr. Stephen Henderson


Dr. Claudine Bonner

PO Box 182
Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada
B4P 2R6

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Reflections on writing Maroon and M’ikmaq History

by Ruma Chopra

My recently published essay in Acadiensis, “Maroons and Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, 1796-1800,” studied the relationship between a group of deported ex-slaves from Trelawney Town (Jamaica) and the Mi’kmaq during an era of European imperial warfare. The archives drew me to consider the two groups’ entanglement within a world created by white and black loyalist migrants, and imperial rules. I wanted to reflect on the intertwined lives of people who had very different histories, yet who would – for about four years – share a range of similar experiences. I was taken by how their experiences resonated with one another but also the ways in which their futures diverged. Both groups had military skills, both were seen as family-based communities, both had long experiences adapting to European exigencies. The Maroons, benefiting from the anti-slavery attention, left for Sierra Leone, hoping to transform into British colonizers. The Mi’kmaq struggled to hold their land against colonizers.


Maroon leader, Nanny, on Jamaica’s $500 bill.

There is a tension shared by scholars who work on black history and indigenous history – perhaps not dissimilar from the concerns shared by those who work on Atlantic Canada in general (Three years ago, Jerry Bannister’s “Atlantic Canada in an Atlantic World? Northeastern North America in the Long 18th Century” raised important questions about the limits of the Atlantic framework.) On one hand, there is a shared history with the imperial and Atlantic world. There is also a history shared with the U.S. South. (In some narratives, the Caribbean has become simply an extension of U.S. plantation history.)

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Table of Contents for the latest issue of Acadiensis

A new issue of the journal Acadiensis is hot off the press, with plenty of exciting new research on the Atlantic region, the latest Past and Present features, a number of review essays and historiographical commentaries, and a tribute to Herb Wyile.


Micah A. Pawling
Wəlastəkwey (Maliseet) Homeland: Waterscapes and Continuity within the Lower St. John River Valley, 1784-1900

Stephen Hay
How to win Friends and Trade with People: Southern Inuit, George Cartwright, and Labrador Households, 1763 to 1809

Penney Clark and K.M. Gemmell
“The school book question is a farce”: Free Textbook Provision in Nova Scotia, 1864-1944

Philippe Volpé
De l’ACJA à l’ACIC ou de l’Action nationale à l’Action catholique : associations jeunesse et mobilisations collectives en Acadie, 1908-1942

Stephen Harold Riggins
Sociology by Anthropologists: A Chapter in the History of an Academic Discipline in Newfoundland during the 1960s


Julien Massicotte
L’ambivalence acadienne : discours et identité à l’heure de la Confédération

Martha Elizabeth Walls
Confederation and Maritime First Nations

Phillip Buckner
Beware the Canadian Wolf: The Maritimes and Confederation


Barrington Walker
Exhuming the Archive: Black Slavery and Freedom in the Maritimes and Beyond

Yves Frenette
Mémoire et historiographie acadiennes : autour de deux livres

J.T.H. Connor
Community Roots, Global Reach: The Hospital as Academic Medical Centre


Lianne McTavish, Andrea Terry, Susan Ashley, Heather Igloriorte, and Kirsty Robertson
Critical Museum Theory/Museum Studies in Canada: A Conversation


Tony Tremblay
Herb Wyile

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MSVU faculty’s open letter to Frank Magazine regarding El Jones

The following open letter was written by the faculty of Mount Saint Vincent University in response to a racist cartoon of El Jones that appeared in Frank Magazine. It was originally published in Halifax’s The Coast newspaper. It is reprinted here in an effort to expand its impact beyond Halifax.

by MSVU Faculty

As faculty members at Mount Saint Vincent University and concerned members of the Halifax community we write to express our outrage at the racist caricature of El Jones, our colleague at MSVU, that appeared in the pages of Frank Magazine. The cartoon showed Jones, along with Halifax’s Poet Laureate Rebecca Thomas and others, at a recent protest of Halifax`s Edward Cornwallis statue.

We object strongly to the racist depiction of Jones, who was singled out for ape-like representation in a manner entirely stylistically consistent with the long, odious tradition of racist caricatures of Black and brown people. Animalistic representations of people of African descent originated in and maintain racist ideas of Black people as subhuman, uncivilized, unintelligent, and dangerous. For hundreds of years they accompanied pseudo-scientific colonial attempts to “prove” the inferiority and inhumanity of entire peoples to facilitate their brutalization, dispossession, and exploitation. They were visual markers of Jim Crow, apartheid, slavery, and genocide. To contextualize this depiction is not to censor satire, it is to identify the way racism works in an everyday way. The explanations about the non-racist intent behind the depiction offered by the Frank editorial team and the cartoonist are disingenuous and duplicitous, attributing ill intent to those who might perceive the cartoon in a racist way rather than taking responsibility for intentionally crafting and circulating that representation. In 2017, at a moment charged with issues of racial injustice, Frank Magazine depicted a celebrated activist, artist, academic, and educator who has been publicly addressing issues of white supremacy and racism, and who is a member of Nova Scotia’s Black community, as a monkey.

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Growth Fantasies and the Shrinking City: Researching the Saint John Experience

by Gregory Marquis

In 1867, Saint John was one of the top cities in the new Dominion of Canada.  For decades its chief rival was Halifax. During the early 20th century the Nova Scotia capital, in terms of population, began to outpace the New Brunswick city and by 1971 Halifax had one third more residents than Saint John. In the meantime both regional metropoli had been surpassed in size and influence by cities in central and western Canada. Saint John then entered a period of long-term population decline which continues to this day. The 2016 census revealed that there were fewer than 59,000 people in the city although the larger Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) totalled 126, 202. And the Saint John area was no longer the biggest urban agglomeration in the province: the Moncton CMA had grown to 144, 202. Given a continued trend towards a shrinking population in both the city of Saint John and the CMA, it is likely that within a few decades the CMA will be surpassed by the greater Fredericton area (population 101,760 in 2016).[1]

Old North End 2017

Old North End – Saint John

For a Baby Boomer who was born in the city of Lancaster (amalgamated with Saint John in 1967) and attended public school and two years of university in Saint John, and who has taught at UNB Saint John for nearly two decades, researching and writing the city’s history is not simply an academic exercise. It is part lived experience. For example, I lived through the Bricklin episode of the 1970s, the building of the Coleson Cove thermal plant and the Point Lepreau nuclear power station; attempts in the 1980s to revitalize the central business district with the Trinity Royal heritage district and the construction of the Market Square complex; the closing of the Saint John Shipyard and Dry Dock and the Atlantic Sugar Refinery; the proliferation of call centres and the expansion of the information technology sector; the opening of Harbour Passage, a waterfront walking trail; and the completion of two terminals to handle cruise ships which arrive mainly during two months of the year. I have witnessed the city tackle longstanding issues such as raw sewage piped directly into the harbour, poverty and a shortage of decent affordable housing. ‘Harbour cleanup,’ spearheaded by an environmental organization, ACAP Saint John, has been achieved thanks to support from three levels of government. Serious poverty and housing issues remain, although a host of organizations are working in these areas.

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