On the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a war crime: The organization of the city as a war port is the ‘business’ best adapted for profit

Painting of the Halifax Explosion

Infamy of the massacre of the Canadian people in Halifax

December 6th is the centenary of the horrific Halifax Explosion of 1917 – the largest explosion in history before the infamous devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US atomic bombs in 1945. The tragedy is being marked by an intensive program of events and initiatives, including scores of books, exhibits, radio and TV programs, memorial meetings in Halifax and Boston, and a stamp issued by Canada Post.

The following article by Tony Seed reports on a paper presented by anti-war activists in Halifax in 1983 and expands on it for this publication. On this date, we pay our deepest respects to the families of all those who died as a result of this disaster.


ON DECEMBER 14, 1983 a commemorative meeting was held on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion by the Organizing Committee to Found the Halifax Committee Against Imperialist War (HCAIW). The meeting was the third in a series of forums held during that fall on the economics and politics of the imperialist war preparations. Members of the committee researched and presented a paper “On the 65th Anniversary of the Imperialist Massacre of the People of Halifax.” This paper has been lost but, however, a synopsis was published in Halifax People’s Voice at the time, from which I quote. This article develops from the thesis discussed in 1983.

The HCAIW was founded at that time in response to the stepped-up war preparations of the Trudeau government such as the Cruise missile tests, the escalating “visits” of warships to Canadian ports and the parallel, state-organized militarization of culture and life of Halifax. Under the overall leadership of Hardial Bains and the Marxist-Leninist Party, the aim of HCAIW was to present a principled and political solution to the dangers faced by Haligonians and the Canadian people, unite the community and directly confront the war preparations head-on, and further the struggle of the peoples for empowerment and in defence of their right to live in peace. It is to their merit that these anti-war activists and cultural workers were the first to challenge the official historiography and narrative of the Halifax Explosion with the spirit of scientific enquiry, from an independent and anti-imperialist perspective in a broad historical context, avoiding a narrow interpretation. Their paper aimed to convey the broad sweep of historical forces shaping this event within the conditions at the time. To make this framework visible, many elements usually consigned to the background were brought to the fore. The accounts of individual heroism and tragedy do not appear front and centre, though it is very clear that notable individuals played critical roles at crucial times.

On the other hand, the paper exposed that “the propaganda of the magnates of Halifax, the government, the press and some reactionary literary and cultural figures whose self-serving aim in their own historical falsification of the events is to absolve and exonerate the war makers, the British imperialists and the Canadian bourgeoisie in order to create an acceptance of war by implanting in the minds of the people the psychosis of the ‘military tradition’ of Halifax.” It is duplicitous and criminal. The historiography of the Explosion-as-such is thus presented as

  • A peculiar “local” disaster, an “act of God” and an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime “accident” caused by an inexplicable series of “oversights”;
  • Manslaughter caused by the individual negligence of a ship’s captain or pilot; or
  • Even more absurdly, sabotage by “foreign agents” in league with “socialists” (from Quebec! from Russia!) as portrayed in the tawdry, anti-communist 1981 novel titled Sixth of December by Jim Lotz. Post 9/11, this disinformation became the leitmotif of the $10.4 million dramatic miniseries produced in 2003 by the state broadcaster the CBC titled Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion criminalizing the “enemy within” as the culprit and presenting American aid as “decisive” to the rescue and recovery efforts.

Even the precise time, location and number of blasts (one) of Sixth December was left in the shade for decades in the Explosion-as-such narrative and the decontextualization of the disaster.

World War One was a carnage of unprecedented proportions, which took place from 1914 to 1918. Canadian official historians and political leaders cynically celebrate it as “the birth of a nation,” allegedly paying homage to the Canadians slaughtered at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and other battles. As Lenin pointed out, it was fought between two coalitions of the imperialist bourgeoisie competing for the partition of the world, for the division of the booty, and for the strangulation of small and weak nations. He called it an enormous crime by an imperialist, violent, predatory, reactionary bourgeoisie.

Despite this universal character of World War One, the discussion of the Halifax Explosion of 1917 deliberately ignores the conditions prevailing in 1914 to deny the material conditions today. One hundred years later, they are described in Cold War terms by Peter Van Praagh, president of the Washington-based Halifax International Security Forum, as having “brought home to North America the reality of the War in Europe” which was allegedly won by the “decisive” entrance of the United States.

In particular, the Explosion-as-such narrative denies the Canadian state’s current preparations for imperialist war – exemplified in Halifax by construction of a new fleet of warships, the Atlantic Gateway project and the construction of transportation infrastructure for the rapid movement of troops and war materiel, ongoing “visits” of the US nuclear warships and the U.S.-led Halifax War Conference. As part of the current arrangements, the privatization of the port, shipping and the railways, legal measures for the criminalization of longshoremen, preclearance by U.S. Customs and construction of military safety zones in the harbour, and self-regulation by industry over the affairs which concern the society have and will result in still more crimes against the people.


The strategic role of Halifax: The historical background

The 1983 paper brought out “historical facts about the role of Halifax in the war plans of the imperialists in the First World War and how the Canadian bourgeoisie reaped enormous profits from the First World War and the use of Halifax in this regard.”

To the magnates of Halifax and the state, the organization of the city as a war port has been the self-serving “business” best adapted for the extraction of maximum profits since its founding by the British Empire in 1749. The location was always coveted by the English, who had originally attempted to penetrate and rule Nova Scotia from the colony of Massachusetts through the “old capital” of Annapolis; the conditions were very hostile, both for settlement as the most fertile land had been settled by the Acadiens, as well as the constant resistance of the Mi’kmaq Indigenous people and Acadiens, so those schemes were abandoned.

Halifax was thus originally established as the new base by the Board of Trade and Plantations, an agency of the British state, for three main strategic and military purposes:

(1) a place d’armes to smash the alliance between the Mi’kmaq Indigenous people and the Acadiens;

(2) as a launch pad to attack the massive fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island of France, the traditional enemy of England, as part of the drive to conquer North America – an important naval-military fortification, Louisbourg guarded the approaches to the Gulf of St Lawrence and the northwestern Atlantic sea lanes; and

(3) as a strategic base on the sea lanes between Europe, the rich Grand Banks fisheries which fuelled the slave trade, the US and the Caribbean, which was under complete colonial rule. Its location was a key to subjugating the Caribbean with its profitable slave plantations owned by English, Spanish, French and Dutch interests.

Through the 19th century – during the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the first Crimean War of 1854-56, the U.S. Civil War and the 1898 Boer War – to the 20th century, Halifax functioned as the strategic base for the British naval fleet, the British Atlantic and West Indies naval squadron and, following the colonial Confederation of 1867, the deployment of Canadian troops and ships as cannon fodder for the wars of conquest of the British and American Empires through to the 21st century. On the Pacific Coast, Esquimalt, BC performed a similar, though less important role.

Formation of the Canadian Navy

The neo-colonial Confederation of Canada of 1867 did not solve the problem of defence of the nation. It vested sovereignty in the British Crown, not the people of Canada. The military and police power of the state was represented by a militia originally under the command of British colonial officers and the Northwest Mounted Police (becoming the RCMP in February, 1920). The militia was a weapon of repression of popular struggles for rights. Under the pretext of “aid to the civil power,” federal military occupations in Nova Scotia averaged almost once every seven years from 1876, in 1882, 1889, and 1904 – virtually all against coal mining communities.[1] The naval forces constituted fisheries-protection vessels of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, used to haphazardly monitor depradations by the U.S. of the rich East Coast fishing grounds.

At the turn of the century, in the context of the Dreadnought Crisis and the Anglo-German rivalry for naval-military supremacy of the world’s oceans and sea lanes, the Canadian Parliament approved on March 29, 1909 expenditure on a Canadian naval service to “co-operate” with Britain’s Royal Navy. On May 4, 1910 the Naval Service Act brought the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) into being. At the time, the Dominion of Canada was part of the British Empire and had no independent decision-making power. The decisions permitted in the House of Commons were those authorized by and favouring the British Empire. The Command in Chief of the naval forces was declared “to continue and be vested in the King.” Although established by the Laurier government as an ostensible declaration of Canada’s independence from the imperial fleet, the RCN was the child of the Royal Navy, a product of the demand of the British government that Canada shoulder the burden of its “defence” as the price for the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie being given a role in empire-building. Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, a Canadian, was appointed director; he was a retired Royal Navy officer and director of the much-maligned fisheries service. In 1912, a Naval Aid Bill of the Borden government, which was defeated, actually provided for Canada building three battleships for the Royal Navy – not the RCN. The first ships of the RCN were RN cast-offs; by 1914, the RCN had a two-ship fleet.

The ship based in Halifax on the Atlantic Ocean, the cruiser HMCS Niobe, had been on the way to the scrap heap when purchased. It had not sailed for three years and was without a crew and ammunition. “To all deep-sea intents and purposes Halifax became, as in the old wars, a Royal Navy base.”

On the Pacific coast, that “co-operation” was distinguished by three notorious events:

1. On July 23, 1914 the newly-acquired light cruiser HMCS Rainbow towed the Komagata Maru, a freighter carrying passengers of Indian origin seeking immigration status in Vancouver, out to sea where it was forced to return to India. The passengers were British subjects, many in fact decorated soldiers having been conscripted to fight for the British Empire. There it was met by British colonial troops who opened fire on the returning pilgrims who refused to hand over the organizer of the expedition, massacring twenty and wounding many more. [2]

2. In 1915 the Borden government deployed Rainbow (1910-1920) to cover the retreat of two British sloops during the Mexican revolution. The HMS Shearwater and HMS Algerine were protecting rich British interests in Mazatlán, a seaport on the Pacific shoreline.

3. In 1916 and early 1917, Rainbow was used to transport $140,000,000 in Russian gold bullion (valued in 1917 Canadian dollars), between Esquimalt and Vancouver; this fortune was placed in trust with Canada by the Tsarist Russian government for protection due to the impending Bolshevik revolution.

The Canadian navy was thus used to collaborate with the British to suppress the Mexican, the Indian and the Russian peoples’ wars of independence.

For the next forty years, Canadian naval officers trained in the British fleet – their “big ship time.” They deployed and operated under British command, especially in the Caribbean, just as today Canada’s Maritime Command operates under the command of the U.S. and NATO fleets – their “interoperability” – in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, Caribbean Sea and in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Korea, Latin America and Russia; all commanding officers are trained and vetted by the United States armed forces.

The First World War

In 1914, the Canadian Parliament did not independently choose to go to war on behalf of the British Empire; the country’s foreign affairs were under the dictate of London. As a dominion, Canada was neither a full-fledged member of the Entente, nor simply a colony. A total of 620,000 men and women were enlisted or conscripted in the First World War, of whom 67,000 were killed and another 173,000 were wounded, manly in the filthy trenches in Europe.

By 1914 Halifax had become one of the most important North Atlantic ports – the port closest to Europe and ice free during the winter connected to the centre of Canada and the USA by rail. Its role during World War I was the rapid movement of troops and supplies from Canada and the United States to Europe to participate in the imperialist war there, the role assigned it by NATO today.

The war demanded the logistical mobilization of all material resources, demonstrating the important role of the economy in an imperialist war. It created a demand for large quantities of various materials, such as lumber and cement. Armies of millions of men demanded an uninterrupted supply of food, clothing, and forage. The war made intensive demands on all types of transportation. More than half of all railroad rolling stock to Halifax was loaded with military shipments. By 1917, the fourth year of the war, the Intercolonial Railway and the Dominion Atlantic (connecting with the Annapolis Valley) were moving special troop trains and supply trains every day. Wikipedia notes that

“An equally important connection was the line from Cape Breton where the largest private employer in Canada, the Dominion Steel and Coal Company (through its predecessors) produced vast quantities of steel and coal for the war effort, much of which was carried by the ICR westward to other industrial centres, before returning via Halifax for shipment overseas.”

Thomas Raddall writes in Halifax: Warden of the North:

“Halifax was filled with enterprising wartime strangers and booming with wartime business. The port that had been so pleased to find itself handling two million tons of shipping in 1913 took in its stride a tonnage of over seventeen millions in 1917. Exports of $19,157,170 in 1915 went to $78,843,487 in 1916, and to $142,000,000 in 1917. Halifax bank clearings, which had reached a healthy total of $95,000,000 in 1913, swelled to $152,000,000 in 1917.”

The first Canadian contingent to Europe sailed from Quebec on October 3, 1914. After that, according to Raddall, of all Canadians sent overseas between 1914 and 1918 at least three out of four boarded their transports at Pier Two in Halifax.

In addition, the British Admiralty, with support from the United States, forced neutral ships crossing the Atlantic in either direction to come into Halifax for inspection. A large number of the merchant vessels of the warring and neutral countries were engaged in shipping cargoes for war industries and armies. Overall, during the war 6,700 vessels (excluding sailing ships) were sunk (total displacement, about 15 million tons, or 28 per cent of the prewar world tonnage).

The pace of these shipments greatly intensified following two developments in 1917. On February 1, 1917, Germany declared “unrestricted submarine warfare” on Britain for the second time. Between February and April 1917, German submarines destroyed more than 1,000 merchant ships of the Allied and neutral countries (a total of 1,752,000 tons). By mid-1917, Britain, which had lost merchant ships amounting to approximately three million tons, found itself in a difficult situation. It could only make up for 15 per cent of the losses, and this was not enough to sustain the export and import traffic essential to the country. The new use of submarines as a deadly weapon of modern warfare required the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy to institute the use of convoys for protecting ships. Halifax’s protected harbour, the second largest in the world, allowed ships to load and form up into convoy formations under protection due to torpedo nets strung across the harbour entrance.

The second development was the official entry of the United States into the war on April 3, 1917. U.S. capital had already begun to seize commanding positions in key sectors of the Canadian economy as part of its fierce contest with Britain for control of the country. The business of war included the striving for expansion of these positions and its influence. For example, the demand for oil to fuel the naval fleets and convoys was unprecedented. In 1916 the Rockefeller-owned Imperial Oil Company, which had entered Canada in 1902, began to construct its big refinery beside old Fort Clarence, a part of the “Halifax Defence Complex”, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour south of the central area. The refinery, covering some 400 hectares (990 acres), with the neighbourhood around it becoming known as Imperoyal, opened on February 18, 1918. Within a few years Imperial Oil (now ESSO) monopolized gasoline and heating oil throughout the Maritimes.

In parallel, US armed forces entered the city. In 1917, the US Navy quickly established a flotilla of fast motor “sub-chasers” and gunboats at Halifax. For example, of the seventeen ships tied up or at anchor on December 6, 1917 two were U.S. Navy warships, Old Colony and Old Glory, along with a US Coast Guard Cutter, Morrill. On August 15, 1918 the U.S. Navy established Shearwater as an air force base on twenty acres of land at Baker’s Point on the Dartmouth side to provide anti-submarine air support for convoys. It was closed in 1920 but during the Cold War, the Pentagon designated CFB Shearwater in the earlier 1980s as a “forward operating base” for the US Strategic Air Command; its jetties are used today to provide a berth for “visiting” US nuclear warships.

Furthermore, during World War I, an American businessman headed the Halifax Board of Trade, whose self-serving biblical line to date became “Halifax booms during war, declines during peace.” The Board of Trade was one of a series of representative organizations formed by the capitalists across Canada to assist the state; these bodies were formed to manage the war economy, including local bodies in the port such as the Halifax Pilotage Authority and, later, the Halifax Relief Commission. As a result, an interlocking relationship developed connecting the state administrative apparatus and big private monopolies.

Between August, 1917 and November, 1918 a total of 50 convoys and about 500 ships cleared the port. Far from bringing “benefits,” this brought disaster to the people. The bourgeoisie was amassing enormous profits out of war orders – the transshipment of military materiel and troops, from servicing, refuelling and victualling of the Royal Navy, inbound and outbound troops, thousands of merchant cargo ships, and the revival of the sugar trade with the West Indies –  and through tremendous exploitation of the working class. Meanwhile, in the port even the most elementary rules of navigation and precaution were thrown to the wind due to the imperialist pressure to accelerate the movement of the maximum number of ships in minimum time. In a word, everything else apart from the business of war was left to chance.

Click to enlarge. IMO on the Dartmouth Shore | Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, The Nova Scotia Museum, Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage

Who was responsible?

The British Admiralty was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the port and the organization of large-scale convoys. The harbour was under the direct command of the North America and West Indies Station of the Royal Navy. It was the main base of the British naval fleet in the northwestern Atlantic. With the crisis in the European theatre and the intensified war for the sea-lanes, the control and organization of shipping and logistics became more complex. Factional and bureaucratic disputes between Canadian and British officials over position and control were common.

The British Admiralty bears direct responsibility for the series of events leading to the explosion of the Mont Blanc, in the wake of its collision with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered for Belgian Relief, a US charitable foundation, in the Halifax Narrows adjacent to densely populated working class neighbourhoods. The Mont Blanc, a munitions ship, was enroute to the inner harbour of the Bedford Basin, five miles long and three miles wide, used as a staging ground for trans-Atlantic convoys. The IMO was outbound.

The Mont Blanc was a French rust bucket overloaded with 3,200 tons of chemical explosives [3] purchased and loaded in New York. It was diverted from New York to Halifax for reasons of U.S. security and the speed demanded of its convoys. The Mont Blanc had been cleared by the British authorities to enter the harbour. The misgivings of inspecting officers including the harbour master were disregarded. This official negligence and indifference was despite two telegrams sent December 2nd from New York as to the danger of the cargo, which went on to then demand it be included in a convoy being organized in the Bedford Basin scheduled for departure on December 8th. A few historians have pointed out that the federal wartime shipping regulations made no distinction with regards to munition ships – normally banned during peacetime from passing through populous areas – but they do not deal with the salient question as to whether regulations restricting their movement would even have been implemented. In that sense, the argument is a red herring.

The entrance of a munition ship to the inner harbour and its passage through a civilian populated area of the port was not exceptional. The British merchant ship Picton was already in the harbour, waiting for dry dock. It was carrying ammunition, as was the tug Musquash.

A war crime, a crime against humanity

The Canadian government bears criminal responsibility for the tragedy. The federal cabinet of Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden, the U.S. authorities who consciously diverted the badly-loaded Mont Blanc with its lucrative cargo from the port of New York to Halifax under the pretext it was a slow-moving ship, and the British authorities were all aware of the threat. The deadliest disaster in Canadian history was an “accident” waiting to happen – a war crime, a crime against humanity:

  • Borden, a native of Nova Scotia and a former corporate lawyer in Halifax, knew explicitly how ad hoc the existing shipping arrangements and harbour regulations were for public safety, where everything was left to chance;
  • This danger increased with the freezing of the St. Lawrence River as slow convoys  – which otherwise embarked from ports on the St. Lawrence – were also forced to depart from Halifax, putting an even greater strain on the already overburdened port facilities;
  • Borden implicitly understood the potential for civil mayhem that any mishandling of ordnance might unleash;
  • Borden ordered no special advance budgetary or other provision;
  • Ottawa had instructed Canadian naval officials in Halifax to interfere as little as possible in local conditions;
  • Borden brought no pressure on the British Admiralty, which commanded the marshalling of convoys from Halifax, before the Explosion to exercise special care;
  • The Halifax Pilotage Authority was a nest for self-serving political patronage; and
  • Borden treacherously dismissed calls to bring damage claims after the war against Britain or France (responsible for the Mont Blanc), who were culpable under international maritime law. [4]

In the time between the collision and the explosion, no evacuation was ordered. The authorities had never even considered the possibility. This “oversight” was despite the fact that ships loaded with munitions were a constant feature of the convoys as the presence of the Picton illustrates and that chemical weapons had been a well-known feature of World War I since April 22, 1915 at Ypres, when the German command became the first to use chlorine gas on the Western Front, resulting in 15,000 deaths.

The innocent

As a result, according to the understated official figures, 1,963 innocent residents of the city were killed, another 9,000 injured and 199 blinded – comprising more than one fifth of a total population of less than 50,000 – of whom 5,000 were soldiers and sailors, not including those convalescing in military hospitals from wounds suffered in Europe. The proportion of fatalities was actually much higher: the most able-bodied men on both sides of the war had been removed from material production and sent to exterminate each other, fighting for the interests of the imperialists. Of this population of the city, an estimated 6,000 youth enlisted or were conscripted from 1914 to 1918 of whom no fewer than 1,360 Haligonians were killed, died of wounds or perished of disease on service overseas. And so, Raddall informs, “it was largely a population of men, boys, girls, and men too old or physically unfit for military service who bore the blow and endured the aftermath.”

One square mile of the working class quarter of the North End facing the Halifax Narrows was totally destroyed. Six thousand lost their homes altogether. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Haligonians were left homeless and destitute, including ten thousand children. More than 1,600 buildings were destroyed, and 12,000 more were damaged. Many died as buildings collapsed and burned around them.

The explosion flattened every building at the shipyard of the Halifax Dry Dock Company, where seven ships were being repaired, killing some 120 workers. Likewise, the management of the huge Acadian Sugar Refinery refused to evacuate the waterfront factory; scores of workers were killed standing on the roof watching the drifting ships in the 20 minutes before the fatal explosion of the Mont Blanc, which had caught fire and was burning in the harbour. On the British merchant ship Picton, also loaded with munitions, 53 of the 68 longshoremen were killed instantly, and two more died within minutes. Of some 500 longshoremen, one hundred were killed and another one hundred injured; forty per cent of the ports workers.

The force of this massive explosion – with one-sixth the power of the first atomic bomb – was so great that people in the small city of Truro over 100 kilometres away felt the tremor; it shattered the windows of the Learmont Hotel. A mushroom-shaped cloud rose several kilometres high, and 3,000 tons of the splattered ship rained down on the area. The ship’s gun landed two kilometres away near Albro Lake on the northern Dartmouth side of the harbour. The huge black anchor from one of the ships, the Mont Blanc, blew over the Halifax peninsula south to land on the far side of the North West Arm five kilometres away, where fragments remain to this day in the Dingle Park. The Narrows was boiling with the splashes of shrapnel. Also falling were rocks, believed to have been sucked up from the harbour bed.

The intense heat of 5,000 degrees Celsius at the explosion’s core was so intense that water surrounding the Mont Blanc immediately vaporized – exposing the sea bed 60 feet below – resulting in an on-rush of water to fill the void. This triggered enormous water activity. Hundreds of workers drowned when the resulting steaming tidal wave – a mini tsunami – reached shore. The wave, boiling with hot metal fragments, flooded low-lying streets more than six metres (20 ft.) above the sea. It is unofficially estimated that in addition as many as 3,200 people or more were killed, taking into account the hundreds of people and children including Mi’kmaq children working and living along the shores of Halifax and Dartmouth who disappeared in the tidal wave. The explosion severely damaged the segregated African Nova Scotian community of Africville. It wiped out Turtle Grove (Maskwiekati Malpek), the Mi’kmaq reservation in the Tufts Cove area on the Dartmouth side. Members of both communities were denied relief and compensation by the official Halifax Relief Commission. [5] The only crime of the innocent was where they lived; the elevated Halifax Citadel fortification, mainly built in the late 1700s with the labour of enslaved African Maroons from Jamaica, broke the force of the explosion and the neighbourhood of the upper strata south of the Citadel was spared. By nightfall another factor was to contribute to the final death toll – the worst winter blizzard in a decade that dumped more than a foot of snow on the area.

Many poignant stories of the survivors and the heroism of the first responders come to the fore during anniversaries; selfless, calm, efficient and capable. Of note, however, is the great emphasis being given to American relief sent from Boston as decisive, purely philanthropic and benign; this narrative originates from around 1970 when the Regan Liberal government inaugurated sending a huge Christmas tree to that city, an initiative with political aims that is little discussed.

Library and Archives Canada – Canada and the First World War.


There were and remain today many questions that needed answers in the wake of the explosion. Why, for example, was Mont Blanc loaded with such an obviously volatile cargo? Why was it allowed to pass through the inner harbour when it could have anchored safely near the harbour entrance, away from where anyone lived? Why was there other traffic moving in the harbour when such dangerous traffic was passing through? Why did the government abdicate any social responsibility? Why did it allow several hundred armed marines land from U.S. warships to occupy the business centre of Halifax under a “law and order” pretext of protecting property from non-existent “rioters”? And more fundamentally, in terms of the present-day threat of nuclear war, why was a major strategic naval military base sited in a harbour where thousands of civilians lived?

None of these questions were dealt with at the subsequent inquiry, which was concerned with only one thing: who individually bore the responsibility for the collision? Through a series of trials confined to technicalities – an inquiry which started in December, a criminal manslaughter trial which started in February 1917 and a civil court case which dragged on into the 1920s – blame was cowardly attributed to two pilots, the French captain and a junior British naval officer, but in the end no official blame was ever affixed nor a cent of compensation demanded from the war criminals by the Borden government. Nowhere was safety of the people considered to be a matter of principle that takes precedence over the aims of private shipping and warships and restricts what they can do to receive permission to operate. On the contrary, the civic, federal and imperial authorities considered safety as subordinate to the business plans of the shipping companies and the business of war in which the working people are collateral damage.

The New Waterford explosion of July 25, 1917

The Explosion-as-such historiography representing this disaster as a purely local phenomena is not history. It was part of the appalling mass slaughter of millions – as the Great Powers with the active participation of the Canadian ruling elite sought to redivide the world with crass disregard for the human cost.

It merits attention that already – just four months before the Halifax Explosion – a massive explosion had rocked a coal mine in New Waterford, Cape Breton, on July 25, 1917. From a shift of 270 miners who went to work that morning, it took the lives of 65 – men and boys alike, some as young as 14 years old – with dozens of other injuries from rock and gas. The Dominion Coal monopoly was pushing for increased coal tonnage and higher levels of production to drive up war profits. Workers clearly described a dangerous situation at the mine: laxity in safety standards, gassy, ventilation, and proper maintenance. It was the largest coal mining disaster in the history of Cape Breton. Official histories that frame both explosions as local phenomena do not mention the “coincidence.” [6]

A wall of silence: The resistance of the working class

The casual link between the disaster and the exploitation of the working class in the past and its impoverishment and resistance is also denied.

The working people of Nova Scotia have a long and glorious history of struggle to affirm their rights and the rights of everyone else. In the aftermath of the explosion, they resisted all attempts to ghettoize and marginalize them still further. The 1983 paper referred to above brought out “new historical facts about the struggle waged by the workers and the people against the imperialist war, their exploitation and calamitous situation after the war.” Under the pretext of dealing with the consequences of the Explosion, for example, migrant, unskilled labour – including Chinese coolies to replace the fallen longshoremen – were recruited by the rich to keep Halifax functioning as a war port and to drive down wages, split the workers’ solidarity and break down the closed union shop. In February 1918 an Ontario labour paper, the Industrial Banner, referred to a group of Chinese labourers who had frozen to death enroute to Halifax. It criticized the injustice of employing foreign labour when “Hardly a day passes but news comes of men and women being notified that their services are no longer required.”

The Halifax workers rose against the injustices, urban land grabs and profiteering from the misery prevailing after the Explosion by the unscrupulous men of property, culminating in a general strike of over 1,100 building trades workers launched on May Day, 1919 – the largest strike in the history of Halifax. I have never seen this strike mentioned in any of the books on the Explosion.

In May 1919, under the auspices of the Halifax Trades and Labour Council, Halifax workers begin publishing a weekly newspaper, significantly named The Citizen, capable of “presenting labour’s case to the public.” | Click to enlarge

A still larger strike of shipyard workers broke out in June, 1920. Centring upon Halifax Shipyards Limited, it affected eight companies, an average of 2,000 workers, and lasted 52 working days. With the total loss of 104,000 man-days it accounted for over 12 per cent of the total strike days in Canada during 1920. [7]

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

These strikes were an integral part of the powerful movement of workers and peoples near the end of and after the First World War, especially with the triumph of the October Socialist Revolution in Russia in November, 1917. The continuous struggle of the people of Halifax shows that imperialist war is not the inevitable future of mankind and of the city. The paper showed that the main fear of the bourgeoisie after the Explosion especially as today, is the resistance and revolt of the workers and people against the imperialist war preparations and the danger of war and the capitalist system of exploitation on which it was based. On Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, Borden wrote in his diary,

“Revolt has spread all over Germany. The question is whether it will stop there.”

The war was used by the Canadian state as a pretext to suppress organized labour and revolutionary politics – at home and abroad through military intervention to crush Soviet Russia. The War Measures Act remained in effect for over a year after the end of the war and was used against organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. [8]


Protest against the third annual Halifax International Security Forum at the Nova Scotian Hotel/Halifax Peace & Freedom Park held on November 17, 2012.

In conclusion, the 1983 paper pointed out as its central thesis that

“… the tragedy of the Halifax Explosion, the subsequent Naval Magazine explosion of July 1945 and other preventable incidents since then shows that the granting of military-naval concessions and other privileges to the superpowers and their naval fleets represent nothing but great danger to the democratic right of the people to live in peace and to their freedom.

“The people of Halifax have suffered enough in the past and do not want the warships in their city or in Canada.

“In these conditions, it is a historic necessity for the people to enhance their vigilance and increase their opposition to the imperialist war preparations. including the ‘visits’ of the warships and marines of the imperialists, both conventional and nuclear.

“Only uncompromising struggle is the guarantee against a repeat of these disasters and will ensure that the people will be able to live in peace.

“No Harbour for War!”

“Commemorative Meeting Held on the Occasion of the 65th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion,” Halifax People’s Voice, published by the Organizing Committee to Found the Halifax Committee Against Imperialist War (HCAIW), December, 1983. This organization evolved into the No Harbour for War group, which is active in Halifax today. Edited and expanded for this publication by the author, with a file from Gary Zatzman.


1 Overall, between 1876 and 1914, the Canadian Militia was used 33 times against striking workers, resulting in arrests, imprisonment, and physical injuries.

2 See “Prime Minister’s Apology for ‘Komagata Maru Incident’: Liberal Hypocrisy Knows No Bounds, Charles Boylan, “Pertinent Facts to Consider when Evaluating the Trudeau Apology for the Komagata Maru Incident,” and Hardial Bains, “Exposing the Role of the State in Crimes Against the People,” TML Weekly, May 21, 2016 – No. 21

3 The Mont Blanc was literally a merchant ship of the notorious “merchants of death” of WWI, the war profiteers. The lucrative value of the Mont Blanc’s cargo of explosives:

Explosives              Quantity        Value in 1917 US$

of the TNT                   226,797 kg              $240,750

Wet picric acid         1,602,519 kg           $2,230,999

Dry picric acid              544,311 kg              $960,000

Guncotton                       56,301 kg                  $65,165

Benzol                           223,188 kg                 $104,376

Totals                          2,653,115 kg              $3,601,290

Data from the 1992 Ground Zero conference, organized by Alan Ruffman, an independent marine geophysicist, and historian Colin Howell of the Gorsebrook Institute, which, for the first time, publicly involved science in analyzing the explosion. They set to rest the precise time of the explosion which had been left in the shade. The independent researchers obtained local seismographic charts (which had been all acquired by Colombia University and are now stored there, not in Halifax) to put to rest the mythological rendition of precisely what time the explosion had occurred (9:04:35 am).

Canada’s prelude to Hiroshima

The researchers also discovered a darker, more disturbing relationship, which had been kept secret by the government for 49 years. Scientific analysis of the Halifax Explosion was carried out by Oppenheimer’s group in the Manhattan Project in 1942 in building weapons of mass destruction that served America’s own imperialist ends, the atomic bomb, to be targeted at highly populated, urban centres.

Writing of this little-known, universal dimension, Dr Ruffman notes:

“…it is clear that the Halifax experience (helped scientists to) gauge the range of air blast effects and to estimate any possible tsunami created by a blast in a populated harbour city.”

He concluded that the Halifax Explosion helped the American scientists in their decision to detonate bombs in mid-air at urban Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, to produce a greater range of devastation: “Their research into what had gone before – including the Halifax Explosion – gave them insight into the potential of a nuclear bomb.” One war crime was the handmaiden of the other.

Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour, Nimbus & Gorsebrook Institute; 1993

4 In 2002 a scholarly book The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy partly exonerated the Royal Canadian Navy, which had been vilified by the Halifax Herald. Author John Griffith Armstrong revealed certain memos – a kind of “reality check” – that had been prepared for the government by the Dominion wrecks commissioner, Capt. Louis Demers. They implicated the entire Borden cabinet in deciding, collectively, to ignore naval service complaints about the chaotic standards of harbour pilotage at Halifax. See “Time to disturb the sleep of the unjust,” a review by Gary Zatzman of John Griffith Armstrong, The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002). <http://www.shunpiking.org/ol01…/05HfxExplosionBookReview.htm>

5 The history of Turtle Grove, a small community that dated back at least to the late 1700s, remains largely unknown; it was already under an expropriation order issued in 1917, was never rebuilt and its survivors were resettled on other reserves. Reclaiming History, a 2000 exhibit of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia curated by Jim Logan, an artist who was the AGNS’s First Nations curatorial resident, included Alan Syliboy’s painting titled “Tufts Cove Survivor”, which laments and honours the Mi’kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove.

In 1918, the Canadian state introduced the idea to combine all nineteen Nova Scotian Mi’kmaq reserves into two locations, called centralization. It is one of the first steps of a well-elaborated “centralization” plan, aimed at extinguishing the individual Mi’kmaq Bands and expropriating and exploiting their land. Contending that the Mi’kmaq constitute only a “relatively few Indians” in “scattered small groups”, such as Turtle Grove, Indian Affairs shamelessly invented the preposterous “One Band” theory.

Also in 1918, the Nova Scotia legislature further strengthened the segregationist and discriminatory provisions of the Education Acts of 1865 and 1884. The power to create separate schools was taken away from local School Boards and given to inspectors of the Department of Education.

6 By 1912, the Dominion Coal Company (DOMCO) had been operating 16 collieries, comprising 40 per cent of Canada’s coal production. Dominion Coal immediately placed the blame on “human error” and cowardly singled out a deceased miner, John McKay, organizer and treasurer of the union local as the culprit.“It was the fellows that was running [the mine],” said one miner, “the officials. As long as they got the pound of coal that’s all they gave a damn about.” Due to the pressure angrily brought by the coal miners and families of the deceased miners, criminal charges of manslaughter were successfully brought by a New Waterford Grand Jury against two mine officials and a government employee. These were callously dismissed by the Nova Scotia court as part of a class system which made and still makes such barely imaginable losses and tragedies possible. The miners denounced it as self-serving, as attempting to deflect blame from those officials who were responsible for the debacle.

For a discussion, see Lachlan MacKinnon, “New Waterford’s Fatal Day: Memorializing the New Waterford Colliery Explosion, 1917-2017,”  The Acadiensis Blog, October 4, 2017; Ronald Caplan, “Mine Explosion in New Waterford, 1917,” Cape Breton’s Magazine, Number 21, 1978, <http://capebretonsmagazine.com/modules/publisher/item.php?itemid=782&gt;

7 Suzanne Morton, “Labourism and Economic Action: The Halifax Shipyards Strike of 1920,” Labour/Le TravailVolume 22 / Volume 22e (1988).

8 For an indepth treatment, see “Foreign Intervention in Soviet Russia and Canada’s Forgotten Role,” and Benjamin Issit, Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok, TML Weekly Supplement, November 11, 2017

Related reading on this website

Canada and the First World War


Filed under Canada, No Harbour for War (Halifax)

4 responses to “On the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a war crime: The organization of the city as a war port is the ‘business’ best adapted for profit

  1. Pingback: The murky origins of the annual US-led Halifax war conference | Tony Seed's Weblog

  2. Pingback: This Day. A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the Halifax ‘Big Strike’ of 1919 | Tony Seed's Weblog

  3. Pingback: 102nd Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion | Tony Seed's Weblog

  4. Pingback: Dr Clement Liquere: Hidden hero of the Halifax Explosion | Tony Seed's Weblog

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