Halifax’s hidden history

There’s a lot more to know about this town’s backstory than the big-name features like Joe Howe and the Halifax Explosion. Take this tour of alternative history to help see the past a little differently.

Aileen Meagher
Aileen Meagher (1910-1987), nicknamed "Canada's flying schoolmarm," was born in Edmonton, but lived and died in Halifax. She ran here, too---Meagher was an Olympic athlete and bronze medal winner. In 1930 she held two Canadian records and continued to win medals for years after. Yet for Meagher, awards weren't important---she just loved to run. She got her nickname from "flying" down the road running to and from the school she taught at each day. In the midst of her teaching and running, Meagher also cultivated her artistic flair for painting. She exhibited regularly in the Nova Scotia Society of Artists shows in the '50s and '60s.

An annual race in Meagher's honour is held August 3 (see page 38 for more information on the event). To get some action before then, grab your sneakers and jog on over to Saint Mary's University (923 Robie Street, 420-5400) to check out Meagher's cross-rubbings and tracings in the university's Irish collection.

After that, head downtown to gaze upon her running medals at the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame (located about the Metro Centre box office on Carmichael Street, 421-1266). Next, sprint back uptown to the Sacred Heart School (5820 Spring Garden Road, 422-4459) to see some of her travel diaries and sketchbooks. Then continue up Spring Garden towards Dalhousie University. At the Dalhousie Art Gallery (6101 University Avenue, 494-2403), one of Meagher's paintings is on display until July 4.

Also on until July 4, the Dalhousie Art Gallery is where you want to visit in order to start the next leg of the alternative history tour. You're looking for the beautiful and somewhat haunting exhibit Anglicana Tales. Peter Coffman, a historian and photographer, merged his skills to create a display with photos and stories of Nova Scotian Anglican churches. The exhibit borrows from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and tells several stories, such as "The Loyalist's Tale," "The Dissenter's Tale," "The Gothic's Tale" and a "Tale of Three Churches."

These photos and stories reveal an important part of Nova Scotia's heritage, an aspect that is fading away: One of the churches has been torn down, one is abandoned and a third is set to be deconsecrated. The exhibit reveals how memorable and captivating these churches are in the built landscape, but the display presents only fragments, mere glimpses of what's discoverable.

After you've seen the exhibit, grab a camera and take your own photo-hunting road trip to capture images of Nova Scotia's places of worship. To get you started in the city centre, try St. Matthew's (1479 Barrington Street) or St. George's Round Church (2222 Brunswick Street).

Clara Dennis
If you've been road-tripping and need some time to recuperate, or if it's just a rainy day, cuddle up with your computer and travel online to discover Clara Dennis (1881-1958), one of Nova Scotia's first travel writers. Although there was a time her name was widely recognized, nowadays hardly anyone has heard of this Truro-born writer, who spent much of her non-travelling life in Halifax. In the 1930s, she was hailed as one of the first women to travel and write at length about Nova Scotia, exploring the character of the province; the three books and photos she complied display its heart and soul.

The Nova Scotia Archives has a massive section on Dennis with thousands of photos to scroll through (tinyurl.com/38xdl2l if you're online, or find the archives offline at 6016 University Avenue, 424-6060). After you've had your fill of Nova Scotia from the past, get on out, grab that camera again, and go make a comparison of some present- day Nova Scotian charm. Compare views of Devil's Island and George's Island or go visit Uniacke Estate (outside the city in East Hants, 866-0032), 45 Coburg Road or Prince's Lodge on the Bedford Highway, directly across from Kent Avenue.

Deadman's Island
Of course, not all of Nova Scotia's history is charming, but even unsavoury tales make for an interesting and mysterious trek. Deadman's Island is a great starting point for a walking tour to discover the Northwest Arm of the past. This little gem is actually a peninsula, not an island, found down Pinehaven Drive off Purcells Cove Road. Walk down a path and within minutes you'll be standing over hundreds of unmarked graves.

For years, this place was known for ghost stories. People told tales about finding bones and, occasionally, even a skull. These tales were likely true. There are more than 400 prisoners of war, refugees, and quarantine patients resting on this little peninsula.

Many of these unmarked graves belong to American soldiers from the War of 1812, and there is now a monument in their honour. Some of the other buried bodies belong to French and Spanish prisoners from the Napoleonic wars, runaway American slaves and refugees from the Irish potato famine.

There was a dancehall on the island in the early 1900s, but nothing like that is going to happen again. Take a walk around the island, sit on a bench, gaze out at the Northwest Arm and imagine what life may have been like for the many souls who found their final resting place somewhere beneath your feet.

Edith Jessie Archibald
For an interesting grave that is marked, visit Camp Hill Cemetery and look for Edith Jessie Archibald (1854-1936). This Haligonian was described as a "feminist superstar" who is most known for her work toward women's suffrage. In 1917, she led a delegation which tried to convince Nova Scotia's premier to be in favour of the suffrage bill. In 1918, Nova Scotian women were given the right to vote.

Before this victory, Archibald was president at the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Cape Breton, where she worked her way up to national levels. When she moved to Halifax in 1894, Archibald helped found the Victorian Order of Nurses and was heavily involved in women's groups and humanitarian organizations.

As you leave the graveyard, walking the streets of Halifax, consider what the province would have been like if people like Archibald hadn't worked toward equality and providing the voiceless with a voice. For starters, Megan Leslie, Halifax MP and the NDP's health critic, would certainly be leading a very different life.

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