history and art and the atlantic

When you begin life as a port, play an important naval role in a world war, and provide a landing point for tens of thousands of ocean-crossing immigrants and refugees, your history and art is going to be influenced by the sea. This is probably truer for Halifax than for any other city in Canada I can think of, and if there is any question in anyone`s mind, two museums and an art gallery will set the record straight.

The Pier 21 Immigration Museum was my first stop in Halifax. This newly nationalized museum is housed in the dockside building that served as the processing facility for tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from 1928 to 1971. Newcomers fleeing famine or war, seeking relief from religious persecution, or simply attracted by the promise of free agricultural land passed through this building and often right onto a train to take them west. Not everyone was allowed into Canada, either here or elsewhere and the museum carefully acknowledges that Canada’s immigration policy over the years has been a mixed bag of racism and targeted exclusion. There is an area where visitors are invited to add their story of coming to Canada on baggage tags – many I read were written by adults recalling arriving at Pier 21 as children before and after the Second World War.

Everyone arrived here by steamship, and once settled, sometimes returned to their home country to further settle affairs or retrieve family members. A significant exhibition explains what happened on one such return voyage. In May, 1914, the Liverpool-bound Empress of Ireland was working its way down the Saint Lawrence River when at 2 am it was struck by a Norwegian freighter loaded with coal, ripping the side of the Empress wide open and causing it to sink in less than 15 minutes, taking as many as 1000 lives with it. At the time, it was characterized as Canada`s Titanic. A chart notes that the survival rate for the crew was 60%, for male passengers in first class 49%, for female passengers in first class 32% (much lower for both in second and third class, and for children 3.6% (all were in second or third class). So much for evacuating women and children first!

Life on the water is further described and celebrated at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, although here too tragedy is never far – there are some 10,000 shipwrecks in the region, from pirate ships to wartime boats to the Titanic itself. The museum is very proud to have one of the only surviving deck chairs on display. The December 1917 Halifax Explosion is also thoroughly explained, the result of a collision in Halifax Harbour between a freighter carrying relief supplies bound for Europe and a freighter absolutely packed full of high explosives also heading for Europe. The explosion was the largest human-caused explosion in history until the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan. To balance all this maritime destruction there are numerous display cases with large-scale models of ocean liners, lots of marine artifacts, and a temporary but massive seaside-themed scene built entirely with LEGO.

Last stop: the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Here the nautical theme continues in one of the ongoing exhibitions with sea-themed artwork from the permanent collection, everything from seagulls to ships and the power of the sea. Many other exhibitions are squeezed into the gallery which encompasses two floors in one building and four in another, connected through an underground passageway. Free admission on Thursday nights.

Pier 21

Pier 21

Old welcome sign on display at Pier 21

Old welcome sign on display at Pier 21

Inside Pier 21

Inside Pier 21

Hundreds of bagage tag stories on display

Hundreds of bagage tag stories on display

Just one of many fascinating stories on display

Just one of many fascinating stories on display

The Empress of Ireland sank in under 15 minutes

The Empress of Ireland sank in under 15 minutes

Chart showing survival rate based on sex and class

Chart showing survival rate based on sex and class

Unromattic end for a pirate

Unromattic end for a pirate

One of many large scale model ships on display

One of many large scale model ships on display

More model ships

More model ships

Even my favourite Halifax beer has a marine theme: the Propeller IPA

Even my favourite Halifax beer has a marine theme: the Propeller IPA

tour reveals cold war fears

It may seem right out of an old science fiction or zombie apocalypse movie, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the country were focused on keeping selected government and senior military officers alive in the event of a nuclear missile attack. The solution? Stash them in a massive concrete bunker 75 feet below the surface of the earth.

In 1959, on the orders of then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, scientists and military engineers were brought together to prepare plans to secretly construct a series of underground Emergency Government Headquarters across the country. Many were constructed, but the largest was built to house the Federal government, military officials, and support staff, 535 people in all. It comprised 100,000 square feet on four levels, and was designed to withstand a 5-megaton nuclear blast as close as 1.8 KMs away, and keep everyone inside alive and well fed for at least 30 days. It took 18 months to build and was ready for use in 1961.

In the event of imminent nuclear war, the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and key support staff, as well as military leaders and their support staff, would be whisked away from Ottawa by rail to the bunker in Carp, about 30 to 40 minutes outside the capital. No one would be allowed to bring their spouse or other family members – and in fact when Diefenbaker learned this was the case, he refused to ever set foot in the bunker, and never did.

Fortunately no one was ever evacuated to the bunker, although when tensions were high during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, officials were ready to swing into action. For the next 30 years, it served primarily as a military communications base and training facility for reservists, finally closing in 1994.

It would have faded into obscurity had it not been for a group of local volunteers and former bunker staff who cleaned it up, re-furnished it and now offer special events, school tours, self-guided tours, and the day I was there, guided tours.

To enter the bunker, you head down a long blast tunnel designed to take the force of a nuclear blast through one side of the hill and out the other, thereby taking pressure off the heavy doors to the side that take you to the elevators. Our tour guide provided lots of great detail about what we were seeing, showing us the mini-hospital, the War Room, Cabinet offices, the Prime Minister’s bedroom, cafeteria, support staff bunk rooms, the mainframe computer room and more.

Perhaps the most surprising room was the huge Bank of Canada vault connected to the bunker. In the event of a nuclear missile attack, while government and military officials were on their way to the bunker, Bank of Canada officials would be loading trucks with gold bars, an important consideration when a country’s solvency was largely based on it’s gold reserves, and the last thing you want is for your gold to be radioactive.

A visit to the Diefenbunker is a great drive and day trip from Ottawa. Plan to spend at least an hour inside the bunker itself – I’d suggest two hours if you’re keen. Then lunch at the historic Cheshire Cat Pub on your way back out of Carp.

Blast tunnel

Blast tunnel

One of 300 rooms in the Diefenbunker

A typical office, one of 300 rooms in the Diefenbunker

Manframe computer room, keeping communications within the Diefenbunker and with the outside world

Manframe computer room, keeping communications going within the Diefenbunker and with the outside world

The cafeteria, open 24 hours a day when the bunker was in operation

The cafeteria, open 24 hours a day when the bunker was in operation

Inside the Bank of Canada value, no gold in sight

Inside the Bank of Canada vault, no gold in sight

Bunk beds -- the plan was for the beds to always in use by whoever was off shift at the time

Bunk beds — the plan was for the beds to be in continuous use by whoever was off shift at the time

The entrance is a just a big machine shed, the interesting stuff is underground

The entrance is a just a big machine shed, the interesting stuff is way underground

tour explored meaning of reconciliation

Original 1893 cornerstone for the Coqualeetza Industrial Institute (Indian residential school)

Original cornerstone for the Coqualeetza Industrial Institute (Indian residential school)

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Inside the long house at Coqualeetza.

What does reconciliation look like, especially when resource extraction and industrial development take political priority over Indigenous rights? Not the usual question on my mind when setting off on tour, but when you’re joining twenty people engaged in faith-based social justice and environmental activism, it’s no longer just about the scenery.

Earlier this year a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a ground-breaking report that made more than 90 recommendations aimed at addressing a legacy of terrible injustice and creating a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations. The group I was accompanying wanted to gain a sense of what reconciliation might look like, by visiting the people and places facing business-as-usual challenges to the environment and Indigenous land and title rights throughout the Fraser River Basin and Peace River watershed regions.

We connected with numerous First Nations leaders and activists, frontline workers, agricultural landowners and environmentalists, and scanned vast landscapes that would be lost forever if proposed industrial projects go ahead. We also visited sites that reminded us that every level of government in Canada has a long history of marginalizing and abusing Indigenous populations.

Our first stop was one such former site of attempted cultural genocide (in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), the former Coqualeetza Industrial Institute in Chilliwack, a residential school eventually claimed and repurposed by the Stó:lō Nation. It is now the home for a wide range of offices and services operate by and for the Stó:lō. Most of our visit was spent inside a more recently built cedar-clad longhouse, sharing stories with very generous local elders.

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If the Ajax Mine is approved, this vast landscape will be turned into an open pit copper mine with toxic tailings ponds. The environmental impact and risks are not being properly considered.

In Kamloops we moved from the historical to the contemporary: a mining company has proposed operating an open-pit copper mine in the valley above the city. Local residents described the grave environmental impacts the mine would have on the health of people and landscape, and the serious threat posed to the city and the local river system if the tailings dam ever burst. The breach at Mt. Polley was on everyone’s mind, except in this case we were told the City of Kamloops would be in the direct path of any major leak. We also learned that local First Nations were reviewing their land and title rights in the area of the proposed mine, (indeed in September, the Stk’emlupsemc of the Secwepemc Nation filed their title case to the BC Supreme Court).

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Inside a pit house at Xat’sull.

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Xat’sull Elder tells us about the only petroglyph-covered stone that survived church instructions to destroy all evidence of pre-Christian life at Xat’sull.

The next day we stopped in at Xatśūll Heritage Village (pronounced hat-sull), a modest facility located next to the fast-moving Fraser River about 35 km north of Williams Lake. Inside a reconstructed pit-house, an elder described life past and present in the Xatśūll community, and told his own story of coming back after many years of difficulties arising from being forced to attend residential school. He took us down along the river to show us a large stone with petroglyphs. There had been many others in the area but priests convinced band members they were false idols and forced them to roll most of the petroglyph-covered rocks into the river.

When we reached Prince George we stopped at Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park, a recently renamed city park. It was the location of a First Nations village until the inhabitants were forced to leave in 1911 to make way for the railway, and some, but not all of their ancestral remains moved with them. It is now a reminder that this was not “an empty land” and that across what is now Canada, Indigenous peoples were displaced by force, threat and false promises.

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The Heart Garden we planted in Prince George.

That afternoon Brenda Wilson described life along the Highway of Tears, a key area of concern around missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Her sister Ramona went missing near Smithers in June 1994 and her remains were found 11 months later but no suspect has ever been identified or charged. Brenda is also the Highway of Tears coordinator in association with Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George. Reflecting on what Brenda shared with us, we planted a heart garden in front of the world-famous “Mr. PG” statue – featuring our messages of solidarity and hope for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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The proposed Site C dam would stretch across the Peace River right here, changing lives and landscapes forever.

From Prince George we headed for Fort St. John, the epicenter for resource extraction, oil and LNG pipelines, and the proposed Site C dam. We heard about high rates of violence against women and limited services to address social problems, we learned that the land to be flooded by the dam is high quality agricultural land that was removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve without input from those affected or the general public, and we could imagine the impact on wildlife and the local climate when a river valley is replaced by a wide, 80 km long artificial lake.

Numerous stops later we ended up back in Kamloops where we met with Arthur Manuel and Nicole Schabus. Arthur is an activist First Nations leader and co-author of Unsettling Canada. He and Nicole described the kind of new relationship that was needed between First Nations and the people and government of Canada.

Our last stop was the re-purposed Kamloops Indian Residential School. The main building was closed for renovations, but the smaller building, which once contained the gymnasium and sleeping quarters for the priests and nuns, is now the Secwepemc Museum (pronounced Se-KWEP-umk-wh). The displays inside tell the story of the people who wintered in the area at least 2000 years ago, the arrival of settlers, and the legacy of oppression that included taking children from families and forcing them into residential school. As in Chilliwack and elsewhere across the country, these church-run schools were wholly designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and rid the government of further obligations towards First Nations communities. Outside are reconstructed winter pit-houses and an ethno-botanical garden.

Eight days on the road and we only scratched the surface of a deeply troubling history of oppression and the many reasons to be concerned about what lays ahead for the Indigenous peoples in Canada. But we also heard stories that gave us hope, and yes, belief that reconciliation is possible and beginning to take shape. The election of a new federal government in Ottawa provides an opportunity to push for full implementation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.

New Denver offers history lesson

Imagine being told to grab what you can carry in a suitcase or two and being forced to leave everything else to an unknown fate. The media describes this scenario with alarming regularly in reference to the many war-ravaged parts of the world, but it also happened here along the peaceful coast of British Colombia. However at the time, not everyone had to leave their lives and livelihoods behind, just Canadians of Japanese origin or descent.

The year was 1942, and just weeks following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour the Canadian government, more interested in scoring racist political points than showing humanity, stripped all Japanese-Canadians of their civil rights and possessions, including cars, homes, fishing boats, businesses and investments.

With only 24 hours notice, Japanese Canadians from coastal towns and the Gulf Islands were herded into animal barns at Hastings Park (site of the Pacific National Exhibition) before being dispersed: men to road construction camps, and women, children, and the elderly to a number of internment camps, mostly virtual ghost towns in and around the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. Very little evidence remains of these camps, which at one time housed almost 20,000 Japanese Canadians, but a few of the shacks survived in New Denver and have been brought together with an original meeting hall to remind all visitors of this sad chapter in Canadian history.

The New Denver internment camp was located just outside town and was home to over 1500 people crammed into 200 little wooden shacks erected in rows in an old orchard. There were two families to a shack sharing a cramped kitchen. One outdoor latrine served as many as 12 families.

One of the surviving shacks serves as the office and information centre, the second shows the interior as it would have been at the beginning of the internment – one bedroom with rough beds and blankets, the other showing personal touches added as internees made the best of life in the remote camps. The third shack recalls how some families continued to live in these shacks past the end of the internment in order to stay close to family members living in the nearby TB sanatorium (now gone). The final public building on site is the 1943 Kyowakai community hall, which houses interpretive displays and artifacts from the time. Exhibition photos and text tell the full story, from the first winter spent in canvas tents despite the heavy snowfall and intense cold, through to the long-overdue political redress settlement in 1988.

The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which just celebrated is twentieth anniversary, is located in New Denver, about 100 KMs north of Castlegar off Highway 6. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially on a one or two day circle tour from Castlegar or Nelson.

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

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Internees were moved from canvas tents to shacks with rough beds and blankets

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Shared kitchen

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View of latrine from one of the shacks

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Personal possessions on display in the hall

 

Inside and out of the cold in Ottawa

When the temperature is well below zero outside, Ottawa offers numerous indoor attractions including a plethora of national museums and the national art gallery. Over the years I have had a chance to visit almost all of them, and with ever-changing temporary exhibitions, all of them are worth returning to.

On a recent mid-winter visit to Canada’s capital city, with an $8 day bus pass in hand, I took advantage of the $20 ticket that provides access to both the Canadian Museum of History (formerly and mostly still known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization), and the Canadian War Museum.

The Canadian Museum of History is a massive complex in Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa. You can catch bus #8 in Ottawa and it will take you to the front door (but check with the driver, not every bus on this route goes as far as the museum).

Perhaps the most famous aspect of this museum, beyond the Alberta Badlands-evoking shape of the building itself, is the Grand Hall. This large and dramatic space features totem poles and building facades that represent the construction styles and tell the stories of the first peoples of the Northwest Coast. The buildings are arranged along a raised walkway/beachfront, and inside each is an exhibition that further displays and describes everyday and ceremonial aspects of Northwest Coast First Nations culture.

On the same level is the First Peoples Hall, described as Canada’s “largest permanent exhibition on the history, diversity and contributions of Canada’s First Peoples.” There is much to see and read about First Nations life from coast to coast to coast.

The other main permanent exhibition area is the third floor and mezzanine that focuses on the broad history of Canada, from pre-contact to present day, including a whaling station, turn-of-the-century village, depictions of wars and rebellions, and the nature of immigration over the years. Loads of information on the people and personalities who shaped the idea of Canada over the years.

The second floor is given over to temporary exhibitions. The mini-exhibition on snow was not that interesting to me; what caught my attention was the exhibition that explored the history and rituals associated with Vodou. Numerous objects, audio recordings, film clips, and descriptions were used to help people understand the origins and worldview of those who practice Vodou. I’d highly recommend this exhibition but it was closing soon after my visit. Maybe it will tour.

Back on the #8 bus which conveniently passes by the side of the equally massive Canadian War Museum. The exhibition space is divided into four major chronological phases in the history of war in, or involving, Canada: wars in Canada up to 1885, wars involving Canada as a Commonwealth nation, the Second World War, and a final gallery that looks at Canada’s role in the Cold War, peacekeeping, and recent conflicts around the world. Within each there are themed sections that examine specific battles, wars, equipment used, the role of artists and the media, and military alliances.

There is also an open exhibition area featuring the heavy equipment of war: trucks, artillery, tanks, boats and warplanes. Perhaps a bit too much killing technology in one place for my peace-activist mind to take, but overall the museum is well worth a visit.

Museum of History - Grand Hall

Museum of History – Grand Hall

The plaster form for Spirit of Haida Gwaii

The plaster form for Spirit of Haida Gwaii

Vodou

Vodou

Vodou

Vodou

Vodou

Vodou

hot springs started it all

We have long believed the national parks that encompass a huge section of the Rocky Mountains are a national treasure. What we didn’t realize was that a modest source of warm water, once deep in the woods but now a short walk outside the present-day town of Banff, was the birthplace of the whole Canadian national parks system.

We found a good deal on a room in Banff and the road was calling! We decided to squeeze in a short mid-summer run across the Continental Divide and back. So off we went, stopping in Revelstoke on the way and staying at The Sutton Place Hotel, otherwise known as the Revelstoke Mountain Resort. They were also offering a mid-summer deal on rooms, and even upgraded us when we got there. The hotel consists of three buildings at the base of a ski hill, likely a much-busier place in the winter, but quiet and out of the way during the summer. We slipped back down into town for dinner, and sampled the locally made India Pale Ale (IPA) called Nasty Habit, which Mt. Begbie Brewing promises is a “wicked ale that leaves you lusting for more”. Right they are!

The half-day drive from Revelstoke to Banff involves driving along side or through three national parks (Revelstoke, Glacier, and Yoho) and some of the most stunning views of mountains in Canada. The area around Banff itself is so picturesque, it does seem fitting that this would be the inspirational for establishing a system of national parks.

It was a trio of railway workers, Frank McCabe and brothers, William and Tom McCardell, who in 1883 stumbled upon an opening in a hillside that lead to a large underground cave and the springs that were generating hot water from deep in the earth. A park brochure notes that Aboriginal peoples and non-native explorers and settlers knew about the cave and the warm water that trickled into a small lake in the valley, but these three believed that with the coming of the railway, they would be able to attract wealthy travellers to bathe in these healing waters. They petitioned the government for the rights to develop the land, but when word reached Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, he proposed the creation of a hot springs reserve, retaining ownership of the land for the public’s “great sanitary advantage.”

Over the years pools were built near the springs that were attracting over 150,000 people per year in by the early 1960s. The pool was closed in 1971, rebuilt and re-opened in 1985, but closed for the last time in 1994. The main facility is now a viewing platform and park museum (and established as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site), and the starting point for trails that criss-cross this unique marshland.
With warm water flowing in, the area stays frost-free even as snow and ice cover the surrounding mountains. We thought we could do the Marsh Trail, but it is also a horse trail, deep in mud and manure, not something to try without rubber boots. We did take a long walk along the main trail, although when we stopped to read directional signs, we were attacked by dozens of large, hungry mosquitoes, forcing a rapid retreat to apply bug spray – so glad we packed it!

We really like international travel, but exploring our own magnificent ”back yard” once in a while is always worth the effort; and there is always something new to learn!

View from our room, Revelstoke

View from our room, Revelstoke

Mt Begbie, near Revelstoke

Mt Begbie, near Revelstoke

Columbia Ground Squirrel, Glacier National Park

Columbia Ground Squirrel, Glacier National Park

Lake area, Cave and Basin, Banff

Lake area, Cave and Basin, Banff

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Chipmunk, Cave and Basin, Banff

Chipmunk, Cave and Basin, Banff

Closed pool at Cave and Basin

Closed pool at Cave and Basin

View from upstairs bar, Banff

View from upstairs bar, Banff

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Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park

Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park

Bighorn Sheep along the highway

Clark's Nutcracker, Manning Park

Clark’s Nutcracker, Manning Park