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Halifax Explosion

Victims, survivors honoured at Halifax Explosion anniversary memorial

George Elliott Clarke performs commemorative poem at service

4 min read
Celie Deagle
caption Members of the audience look on during the memorial service.
Celie Deagle

At 9:04 a.m. Wednesday, over 100 people, including some who travelled from as far as Calgary, stood together in silence at the exact moment the Halifax Explosion occurred 100 years ago.

The crowd filled a plaza underneath the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower at Fort Needham Memorial Park, clad in raincoats and holding umbrellas against the cold rain. In his remarks to the crowd, Mayor Mike Savage noted that some in attendance had travelled quite a distance, prompting a one person to yell out “Calgary” and another “Boston.”

Les Lawson and his mother, Daisy, made the trip to the memorial service from across the harbour in Dartmouth.

“We usually stay over there, but this one is special so we decided to come over,” said Daisy Lawson.

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Her husband was one of the surveyors who helped construct the memorial site in the late 1970s. Before he died, he would sit and look out from his window in Dartmouth at the memorial bells.

“And my grandfather was with the Niobe, which was one of the first ships to come help,” said Les Lawson.  

Rebecca Thomas, Halifax’s poet laureate, recognized the the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove, which was located on the Dartmouth shore and destroyed by the explosion. After her speech, Thomas then introduced George Elliott Clarke, Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

Clarke performed his commemorative poem, titled Achieving Disaster, Dreaming Resurrection: The Halifax Disaster of Dec. 6, 1917.

caption George Elliott Clarke performed his poem commemorating the disaster at the memorial service Wednesday morning.
Celie Deagle

Remembering those who stayed

On Dec. 6, 1917, the Norwegian SS Imo collided with the French SS Mont Blanc, which was loaded down with explosives, in The Narrows, a strait connecting Halifax Harbour with Bedford Basin.

The resulting blast killed nearly 2,000 people and injured another 9,000. The north end of Halifax was levelled and about 25,000 people were left homeless.  

One of those killed was Vince Coleman, the train dispatcher who sent out a warning a passenger train from Saint John, N.B., that was due in Halifax around the blast.

Jim Coleman, Vince’s grandson, spoke at the memorial. He recognized the sacrifice of survivors of the disaster and their families, who were faced with horrific circumstances.

Coleman’s father, grandmother and aunt survived the explosion, but they didn’t talk much about what happened on that day, he said in an interview.

Recently, Coleman said, he has begun to speak more about the heroism of his grandfather and countless others.

“My grandfather had a choice; he was out of the office, and could’ve, as I understand it, kept on going and survived,” Coleman said. “He made the decision to stay and as a result he gave up his life, but lots of lives were saved.”

caption The Stadacona Band with the Royal Canadian Navy played at the memorial service.
Celie Deagle

To Coleman, who grew up in Halifax and attended Dalhousie Law School, what happened in the aftermath of the explosion represented the best of the city and its people.  

“I think that it’s a great thing to honour all the survivors and the fact that they could’ve left but they all stayed,” he said. “And looking at pictures and things it was a pretty devastated place, but they stayed and rebuilt it. Halifax is a spectacular city.”

Premier Stephen McNeil also acknowledged the decision Vince Coleman made and the efforts of survivors, like Coleman’s family, in his remarks to the crowd.  

“Let’s, as we remember, think about all of those great things that came out since 100 years ago,” McNeil said in closing. “Let’s think about what we built … and what so many other Nova Scotians have continued to build on over these 100 years.”

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