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Harbouring secrets

Facts your Harbour Hopper tour guide won’t indulge about Halifax: sex, drugs and sewage control. By Stephanie Domet.


To be fair, right off the bat, your Harbour Hopper guide will tell you a tremendous amount about Halifax, and most of it will be fascinating, and mainly accurate. The tour, however, is just a little under an hour long. Which means there will, by necessity, be certain gaps in the information your guide will provide.

For instance, as the decommissioned American army vehicle starts its incredibly loud voyage through the streets of downtown Halifax, your guide will tell you about its past as a war machine, transporting troops and cargo from ship to shore in Vietnam. She probably won’t tell you, however, that if you poke around online, you can occasionally find a LARC V for sale—for a mere $80,000 US.

You’ll hear about Joseph Howe, one of Nova Scotia’s first politicians and newspapermen. You’ll hear that the Chronicle-Herald, one of Halifax’s two daily papers, had its beginnings under Howe’s editorship. You won’t hear, however, that the Davey Committee’s report on Canadian newspapers in 1970 called the Herald the worst newspaper in Canada.

As your LARC V lumbers down Spring Garden Road, you’ll hear it’s the busiest street in all of Atlantic Canada. You won’t hear, however, that that’s not saying much. You’ll hear also that back in the day, it was Halifax’s duelling ground. You won’t hear that some weekend nights, especially if there’s a full moon, it still is.

You’ll hear about amalgamation, that albatross around the neck of the former cities of Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford and the outlying areas, stretching all the way out to Ecum Secum on the eastern shore and southwest to Hubbards. You won’t hear that 30 percent of the province’s population lives in this “Frankencity,” and that it would take you three hours to drive from one end of HRM to the other. You won’t hear that no one in their right mind—unless they work for the city, or the media, for that matter—seriously refers to the Halifax Regional Municipality, or thinks of that swath of the province as one big, happy amalgamated family.

On Citadel Hill, you’ll learn about the fortress, the living history museum inside, the noon gun, the glacial drumlin. You won’t hear that the shape of the hill—indeed, its height—was altered several times by the military. They shaved between 12 and 21 metres off the thing. You’ll hear that the 78th Highlanders patrol by day. You won’t hear that gay men looking for hook-ups patrol the hill by night. You’ll hear about the dry moat that surrounds the fortress, a drop of 40 feet, deadly to invading armies. You won’t hear about the tourists who used to fall into it before they fenced it off.

Eventually, your amphibious LARC V will make its way to the harbour. On this aquatic leg of the journey, you’ll hear some of Halifax’s most engrossing tales, the Halifax Explosion chief among them. You’ll also hear about the legs of the Purdy’s Wharf towers, their unique design—the towers are built on stilts in the harbour and the buildings use harbour water in their cooling systems—that results in a huge savings in energy for the building. Halifax is a pioneer in this technology, you’ll learn. But you won’t hear that Halifax is also a pioneer in municipal composting, recycling and garbage sorting, no-scent policy-enforcing and in pesticide bylaw-making. Were you to hear all these things, you might get the idea that Halifax is run by hippies. It isn’t, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so.

You’d know for sure that enviro-freak hippies are not the ones at the helm if you knew that, since the advent of indoor plumbing in Halifax, Haligonians have been dumping their bodily effluvia directly into the harbour. Please believe that your Harbour Hopper guide will not tell you this. In fact, she may even refer to the “beautiful Halifax Harbour,” which I suppose it is, if you hold your breath and don’t look too closely at what seem to be tiny jellyfish floating on the water.

We’re working on that whole sewage treatment thing these days, which is why you’ll see some ripped-up and blocked-off streets downtown, as crews work on the Harbour Solutions project. But it’s very much a work in progress. Let’s just say it’s a good thing you can’t trail your hand in the water due to the height of the LARC V, shall we? And when your guide tells you about the Environmental Protection tape around the scientific ships docked in the harbour, when she says the tape means that in the event of a spill, the harbour will not be polluted, you’ll know that the unspoken subtext is: It won’t be polluted any more than it already is.

Look, you’re going to hear a lot about the Titanic on your Hopper tour and that’s understandable. Halifax played a big role in rescue and recovery efforts, and many of the dead from that maritime disaster are buried in local cemeteries. Please note that although one of the Titanic dead who is buried here is named J. Dawson, it is not THE Jack Dawson, a fictional character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1997 movie. Nor is it Leonardo himself. Also note that at the apogee of the whole Titanic madness, there was an ice cream shop in Halifax called Jack Dawson’s. No doubt they did a whopping business that summer. Then, mysteriously, they…went under.

Your guide will tell you that in addition to the historical connection to the actual Titanic, Halifax was implicated in the filming of the James Cameron behemoth. Much of the film was shot right here in Halifax, on the harbour. Your guide won’t tell you, however —and this is a pity, because it is infinitely more entertaining than the film itself—about the fateful meal of lobster chowder fed to the crew. Lobster chowder that had been spiked with PCP, allegedly by a disgruntled former crew member. Ah, Halifax. So cuddly!

The thing is, Halifax is cuddly. The Harbour Hopper’s not a bad first date with the city. But as with all first dates, just know that you’re getting a somewhat varnished impression. You’re getting Halifax on its best behaviour. There’s plenty more to this place than just its neatly combed hair and its company manners. Once you get past its prim and proper, no-Sunday-shopping exterior and its uptight official toy-town culture, once you get a little dirt on its bright white sailor suit, that’s when Halifax really gets interesting. Get a few drinks into it, and you’ll see. Ready for some lobster chowder, anyone?

Harbour Hopper tour reservations, times and costs at 490-8687, or visit the waterfront ticket kiosk located at Cable Wharf.

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