Go at daybreak, when the morning fog still cools the air. Then, as the mist clears, and the outlines of the harbor emerge like the printing of a Polaroid snapshot, picture the scurvy-ridden British pioneers arriving, the booty-laden privateer ships that plundered all the way down the continent's eastern seaboard and the Second World War convoys massing before departing for Europe. From there, anyone can stare into the same blue waters as the red-coated admirals who once plotted Britain's campaign to hold on to the New World. They can see the spot where in 1945 a German submarine torpedoed a Canadian minesweeper, killing most of its crew, and the place where in 1917 the French steamship Mont Blanc and the Belgian steamer Imo collided, causing the biggest manmade explosion the world had seen until Hiroshima. Perhaps they can even glimpse the beaches where the bodies of criminals once dangled from makeshift gallows, a warning for all who entered the splendid harbor.
One cannot travel deeper into the Canadian soul than by entering the anchorage the Micmac Indians once called Chebucto. Certainly, the Plains of Abraham contain all the drama, sadness and triumph of the national psyche. But in Halifax, with its 250 years of rollicking, myth-laden life, the past so overlays the present that history seems alive. "It had always looked like an old town," the novelist Hugh MacLennan once wrote about his home town. "It had a genius for looking old and for acting as though nothing could possibly happen to surprise it."
Well, maybe in 1941 when those words were written. But what would MacLennan think about Halifax today? Would he see the old garrison town to which Rudyard Kipling once gave the stodgy handle "Warden of the Honor of the North"? Or would he see a boisterous, good-time city of the moment - a place with an inspiring landscape, a distinct culture and a relaxed mind-set, but humming with more edgy energy than it has in years?
For if there is a city that is emblematic of the yearnings of these times, it is Halifax. The editors of Harper's Bazaar, the American magazine that christened it "the very anatomy of a hip city" back in 1993, realized that. So do the burned-out Torontonians arriving in pursuit of a bit of the good life, and the Europeans gobbling up real estate in the gorgeous coves and valleys surrounding the city. So, even, do Halifax's young people, who now feel they may have found their last, best place without ever leaving the city of their birth.
For too long, Halifax's energy has been smothered by a colonial regard for authority and convention. Now, the conservative capital of Nova Scotia seems to have rediscovered a lost youth to go with its penetrating sense of history. "It is like someone turned on the power in this place," says Colin Starnes, president of the University of King's College, which was founded in 1789.
The world - in the form of the G-7 summit - could not have arrived at a better time.
It is 1 a.m. on Saturday morning - and the Halifax night is just beginning its raucous second act. Downstairs in the Seahorse Tavern, the ship's bell has rung, and a few stragglers pull on their drafts as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design students, the film-makers, the newly minted lawyers and the rugby players pour into the night. Outside on the wind-scoured street, a mass of skinheads merrily wail along with a guitar-playing busker. Next door at the newly opened Economy Shoe Shop Cafe and Bar, sophisticated thirtysomethings order cappuccino or another single malt Scotch. And everywhere - down Argyle Street towards the octopus of dance spots known locally as the "Liquor Dome," and up Blowers Street towards pizza corner, the mecca of late-night fast-food dining - young people stroll, noisily discussing where to go next to ensure the party does not stop.
At the Birdland Cabaret, where all nocturnal roads seem to lead for those under 25, the coat-check woman seems giddy and the undersized doorman downright frazzled. Here, the local stars are the magnets, among them grunge sensations Sloan and all-girl jale, who got the city tagged "the next Seattle" by the music press in the United States and the United Kingdom. Talent scouts from the big American alternative record labels like Sub Pop and Geffen Records regularly visit the club, searching for the next hot Halifax act. Tonight, the members of Vancouver's The Odds + Ursula thrash away on stage, while all around them young faces glow in trancelike fascination.
Slouched on a stool, one hand clutching a bottle of Olands Export Ale, the other a pool cue as he awaits his turn at the table, Lindsay Sharpe, 21, needs no better reminder of why he stays in Halifax instead of heading back to Toronto, where he has spent most of his life. "This is a great place to be young," exclaims the goateed accounting clerk for an educational publishing house. "Everybody plays music. Everyone goes out. There's a real sense of excitement. You feel like something is really happening and you are part of it."
Something is happening. And the phrase that echoes through the downtown clubs, the old Victorian residences and the studios and offices of the new-breed entrepreneurs is self-confidence. It is a self-confidence that comes from feeling that, for now at least, one lives in a Place To Be rather than a backwater or an outpost on the edge of the continent.
It was not always thus. Even now, when sheets of rain pour from the steel-grey sky and not a hint of romance or poetry hangs in the air, the city seems shabby, drab and down-at-the-heels. But when the sun breaks through, softening the hard edges of the stone Victorian and Georgian buildings and glimmering off the water, Halifax delights the eye. And through the jumble of history, the city's new story reveals itself: in the profusion of clubs and pubs within staggering distance of Citadel Hill, the old garrison where Leon Trotsky was once jailed; in the trendy shops, cafés and ethnic restaurants leading towards the ancient burial ground where headstones date back to 1752; on Spring Garden Road - walking in the direction of the rambling mansions built by the city's brewers, shipping merchants and naval commanders - where on a recent afternoon an orange-robed Buddhist monk floated past a trio of bare-chested musicians pounding out a frantic jazz beat.
Preservationists fought hard battles to keep the city's past intact - to ensure that new highrises and office towers left the historic downtown open to light and air. So it is never easy to forget that Halifax has marched to a military drumbeat from the moment it was founded by the British in 1749 to counter the French presence in the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.
In its 19th-century heyday, Halifax was almost as renowned for its waterfront blind pigs, whorehouses and press gangs as for its wonderful deep-water harbor, which was the envy of the seagoing world. But by the Second World War, a layer of Puritan repression had settled over the town, leaving it stagnant, depressed and dull - a place that only came alive during wartime. "It was terrible, really," recalls Constance Glube, now Nova Scotia's chief justice, trial division, but a first-year law student at Dalhousie University when she arrived from Ottawa in 1952. "There were only a couple of restaurants, and there was hardly a bar in the city where a woman could go for a drink."
Cut to the early 1980s and nothing had really changed. Cathy Jones, one of the stars of the hit CBC satirical television show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, used to call it "Halifax, City of the Living Dead," when she first visited. "We thought it was horrible: dull, uptight, racist, boring, redneck." Now, though, she lives in a Victorian reno in the city's South End. As for her adopted home, she declares it "totally cool, totally hip."
How did this come to be? How did a city that had always lost its young and ambitious to the sophistication of Boston, the career pathways of Toronto and the promise of Calgary suddenly become Halifax the Hip? A visible sign of the city's transformation from backwater to trendsetter was in a huge waterfront shed last month, where beat poet Allen Ginsberg sat banging together a pair of wooden sticks and was well into his "Put Down That Cigarette Rag" with its endless chorus "don't smoke, don't smoke, don't smoke, don't smoke." To his right, Celtic fiddling sensation Ashley MacIsaac - sporting a week's growth and amber-tinted sunglasses - flashed a bow across his violin. Across the stage, Chris Church, another local fiddler, provided counterpoint.
Most of the fashionable crowd listened reverently as the most famous survivor of America's beat literary scene rambled on, sometimes breaking into a reggae riff. Many simply gaped in disbelief at the scene: the 68-year-old New York City beatnik poet and the pair of early-20s hip-hop fiddlers from Nova Scotia - performing together in honor of the Sawang Osel Rangdrol Mukpo's enthronement as leader of the worldwide Shambhala Buddhist community, based in Halifax since 1986.
Halifax has been "discovered" before. Its last, brief moment in the sun came during the late 1960s and early 1970s when American draft dodgers and visiting actors and artists spread the word in the United States of an easygoing "San Francisco North" in Nova Scotia. Back then, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design - hailed in 1973 by the influential magazine Art in America as possibly "the best art school in North America" - exerted an influence throughout the North American art world that defied its small size and out-of-the-way location.
But the buzz had certainly faded by the time the Sawang's father, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, decided to move the westernized Buddhist community he founded from Boulder, Colo., to a less aggressive and materialistic place. A decade later, the word on Halifax and Nova Scotia is undeniably out. Not just among the 800 of his spiritually enlightened followers who now make their home there, but also the executives who decide in mid-life that there is more to it all than trying to climb the corporate ladder, wherever it may be.
How big is the trend? One sure indicator is the European ownership of 1,700 properties in Lunenburg County - a picturesque piece of coastline about an hour south of Halifax - most of them from Germany. And that does not even include the financiers, writers and actors from Toronto, the politicians from Ottawa and the American computer executives who now call the South Shore towns of Lunenburg, Mahone Bay and Chester home for most of the year. They include the likes of broadcaster Alan (Fireside Al) Maitland, and David Johnson, one of the stars of the old CBC television drama Street Legal, as well as summer folk such as ex-federal Tory cabinet minister Barbara McDougall, the exotic Sri Lankan-born financier Christopher Ondaatje and Senator Finlay MacDonald, the federal Tory heavyweight.
And consider the Haligonians who left years ago but are now returning with well-honed job skills and higher expectations of their old home. "The quality of life is just so much better out here," says Michael Napier, an architect who left Halifax for Victoria in 1992, only to return home six months ago. Judy Lake, a former Toronto vice-president with pension fund manager Aetna Canada Ltd., hopped on the wave even earlier. Five years ago, she and her husband, Bill Fullerton, an executive with the Toronto-Dominion Bank, sold their house in the tony Leaside district of Toronto. Now, she mothers two children, acts as an international environmental consultant and runs a string of luxury cottages the couple built in Rose Bay, 80 km southwest of Halifax. "Most of our customers are Torontonians," she points out, "coming down on scouting trips, trying to figure out how they can move here for good."
That is not just an astute marketer's braggadocio. Emigration used to be the city's bane. But from 1986 through 1991, including the early part of the same spirit-breaking recession that wracked the rest of the country, the population of Halifax and the surrounding communities of Dartmouth, Bedford and Lower Sackville - now going through formal amalgamation - grew by eight per cent, reaching 320,000, compared with a six-per-cent increase in the previous five years. And once a newcomer arrives, it takes a crowbar to get him to leave. "Whenever I talk about moving somebody to an office elsewhere, they threaten to quit," complains Hector Jacques, president of the Jacques, Whitford Group of Companies, which does engineering consulting around the world.
The city's biggest booster, Walter Fitzgerald, the portly 59-year-old mayor, can hardly contain himself as he talks about the roughly 100 telephone calls a day his office receives from people expressing interest in moving to Halifax, setting up businesses, holding conventions or just visiting. "I'm a salesman," he says. "I'm always selling Halifax."
In truth, it can still be a hard sell. Last year, provincial government incentives did help to persuade the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to create 500 jobs in Halifax with a new telephone call centre. On June 1, another 600 people started work, but only thanks to the controversial new casino in the waterfront Sheraton Halifax Hotel, which opened for business despite the fact that everyone from government backbenchers to the provincial chiefs of police opposed it.
Otherwise, the small local market too often simply scares off potential investors. Halifax may be the Atlantic region's centre for finance and legal services, but it is still a relatively small city. No surprise, then, that Halifax's downtown remains littered with empty storefronts and office buildings. Fully 12 per cent of the workforce are federal and provincial civil servants - a dangerous reality in these times of public sector restraint. Moreover, cutbacks loom over the 13,000 armed forces personnel in the area, as well as the faculty and staff at its five universities. Yet they keep coming - despite the lack of economic opportunities.
To really understand the appeal of Halifax, it is best to consider the city's self-perception as an oasis that just oozes laid-back lifestyle - a conceit that is justifiable as well as contagious. Kenneth Rowe, the crusty founder and president of IMP Group Ltd., the Halifax-based aviation giant, gloats about the way his counterparts in Toronto or Vancouver sit mired in traffic for hours, while it takes him just 10 minutes to get to the office from his well-appointed Halifax home, and 15 minutes more from his summer place in picturesque St. Margarets Bay. For Mark Surrette, a Halifax-based executive recruiter, the city offers just the right mix of big-city cachet and small-town comfort: "Where else but here will you be able to join the golf club, the yacht squadron and the most venerable old men's club - all for under $4,000?"
Outsiders better get used to that smug tone. It comes from living on a harbor that is dotted with sailboats, kayaks and Windsurfers weaving among the freighters and naval frigates on a clear day. It comes from walking through tree-lined streets, parks and green spaces. And from being able to enjoy all the amenities of a cosmopolitan, bigger city - thriving theatre, a top-notch symphony, live jazz, rock and country music and clubs that cater to gays or straights - and still being only a $5 cab ride from home. It comes from leaving the office on a summer Friday afternoon and, within an hour, lying on a saltwater beach, dining on fresh seafood in Lunenburg or catching some Shakespeare in the tree-shaded Annapolis Valley town of Wolfville, 90 km north of Halifax, where Christopher Plummer has been an enthusiastic booster of the Atlantic Theatre Festival.
An East Coast paradise? Far from it. In a survey of the health of Canadian cities, Chatelaine magazine recently ranked Halifax a lowly 15th out of 25, lambasting it in particular for treating a mere 10 per cent of the wastewater from toilets, sinks and drains before releasing it into the harbor. Being set on a peninsula also means that land is scarce and so housing is pricey: according to real estate giant Royal LePage, a standard two-storey house in the city's most desirable section cost an average of $170,000 in April, making it no cheaper than buying one in the best area of booming Calgary, about the same as one in the well-appointed Toronto suburb of Oakville and miles above other Atlantic centres such as east-end St. John's, where a comparable house costs about $125,000.
For some, too, Halifax remains conventional and narrow-minded. The city's 8,000-strong black community, for example, remains mired in poverty and anger. Just last month, the city, fearing public embarrassment during the G-7 summit, evicted a pair of squatters who had been camping in a former black settlement known as Africville to protest the manner in which the land was expropriated during the 1960s. "The community's gains have been minimal," concludes Gilbert Daye, a black multicultural programs officer with Heritage Canada. Women, to a lesser extent, can legitimately make the same complaint. "Men still overwhelmingly hold the levers of power," says Anne Derrick, a high-profile lawyer and founder of the city's sole women-only law firm.
And, of course, a person has to make a living. Halifax actually weathered the recession better than most cities. Last year, according to the Hemson Report, a survey conducted by the Toronto-based Hemson Consulting Group, the Halifax metropolitan area recorded the eighth-best economic performance in the country measured by indicators including employment, growth and change in real estate value, topping Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal and Toronto, among others. The outlook? Better now that the port, responsible for nearly 9,000 jobs, has rebounded after years of losing traffic to Montreal. And the city fathers hope that word spreads about a study conducted by KPMG Management Consulting for the federal government, which identified Halifax as the lowest-cost site among 10 Canadian and American cities for building light manufacturing facilities.
The big problem with Halifax has always been a lack of entrepreneurs to create jobs and give the economy its fizz. Truth is, a person must be creative to earn a buck in a small city where the public service is the guiding force. Fortunately, information technology and the new knowledge-based economy make that increasingly possible. Three CBC television series - This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Street Cents and Theodore Tugboat - are now shot in Halifax, making it one of the country's television production centres. On a per capita basis, according to Halifax-based NSTN, the country's largest Internet provider, Nova Scotians use the Internet more than people in any other province, a fact underscored by a new coffee shop in downtown Halifax that features a personal computer that customers can use to dial up the Net. And a new breed of entrepreneur, peddling expertise and products in everything from microelectronics and computer software to environmental cleanup technologies, now provides a growing share of the local job market. They include people like John DeWolf, 26, and his partners in 1-2-3 Media Design, who last year created television graphics for Nickelodeon, a United States cable channel that features director Robert Altman as executive producer. And Judith Swan, an expert in the law of the sea who has written the fisheries agreements of 10 countries. And companies like DynaTek Automation Systems, a firm specializing in data storage systems for computers, which relocated to Halifax from Toronto two years ago even though almost all of its $75 million in sales are outside Nova Scotia. As Michael Donovan, vice-president of Salter Street Films, one of the country's most vibrant independent film companies, puts it: "You can live here. But you have to make your money somewhere else."
Halifax, technically, is a city, the 14th-largest one in the country by last count. But spiritually, it is a small town - particularly in the morning, which starts with a leisurely, practised pace that not even something the magnitude of the G-7 summit can really alter.
Inside Perks, a coffee shop sandwiched between the ferry terminal and the city's law courts, the self-styled "waterfront intelligentsia" were well into their usual groove one recent morning. The city has dozens of similar places: bars, coffee shops and greasy-spoon diners where the clientele is fixed and the talk a loose banter based on an intimate knowledge of everyone else's business. A stockbroker and provincial Tory bagman debated golf clubs with a corporate lawyer; a prominent Liberal arrived to pick up a morning paper and trade political gossip; the rough-looking guy in the windbreaker who pulled up a chair turned out to be a judge on his day off. But today, amid the noise, cigarette smoke and smell of baking sugar, the new face of Halifax is also evident: the Italian-Canadian judge with the Al Pacino hairstyle lining up for an early-morning jolt of caffeine; the writer - eyeing the muffins - who recently returned from Vancouver to work on a new Internet project for a local film production company; the music promoter just stepping through the doorway who is putting together a summer comedy festival for the thousands of tourists who flock to the city to see what the buzz is about. "Oh, Halifax is changing," says Dennis Ryan, a musician and businessman, his voice dripping with the lilt of his native Tipperary, Ireland. "You can almost feel the earth shake under your feet."
The tremors register a few blocks away at the city's venerable Georgian legislature building, Province House, where Premier John Savage is fighting for his political life. His crime: doing the unthinkable and trying to end Nova Scotia's old pattern of Tammany Hall-style political patronage. They also resonate through the waterfront courthouse, where the justice system is still trying to regain credibility after a scathing 1989 royal commission report into its role in the wrongful murder conviction of Donald Marshall. "The jury is still out on whether we have truly cleaned up our act," declares Craig Garson, a Halifax lawyer who has clashed with the legal establishment in several controversial cases.
In a way, though, the new willingness to challenge the established order speaks volumes about Halifax - a city energized by new blood and rediscovered confidence. Intellectual vigor is to be expected in a place with five universities - total enrolment 25,000 - and among the best-educated populations of any city in the country. Colin Starnes of King's College maintains that being on the geographic margin of Canadian life makes for a certain independence and freshness of thought. "Halifax has always enjoyed the marvellous ability to be a provincial looking at the centre of the country without having to be caught up in its enthusiasms," he says.
Now, though, the city's moment may finally be here. On a recent fogbound Saturday night in the same aging harborfront pier shed in which Ginsberg had held court, a Cape Breton-style celeidh, a kind of Celtic square dance, was under way. On a rickety stage, Buddy MacMaster, the dour dean of Cape Breton's traditional Celtic fiddlers, whipped off reels, strathspeys and airs with effortless facility. Then, Mary Jane Lammond, thirtyish and garbed entirely in black, silenced the room with her soaring Gaelic lyrics. The music was centuries old. But there was nothing provincial and tradition-bound about the crowd whirling and jostling on the dance floor. "That's the thing about Halifax," explained Wendy Friedman, 31, the manager of a Himalayan clothing store, as she sat finishing a beer with her Sri Lankan musician boyfriend. "The cultural and social barriers have disappeared. Everything and everybody is included; nothing is neglected."
Then she was gone, heading into the night, where a foghorn wailed like a banshee. Somewhere out there she knew something was going on. She just had to find it.
Maclean's June 19, 1995