Infamy of the massacre of the Canadian people in Halifax
By TONY SEED
December 6th is the 102nd anniversary of the horrific Halifax Explosion of 1917 – the largest explosion in history before the infamous devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945. Some 1,963 innocent men, women and children were massacred, another 9,000 injured and 199 blinded, comprising more than one fifth of the total population, resulting from a massive explosion due to the collision in the inner harbour of the merchant ship Imo and the ammunition ship Mont Blanc loaded with 3,00 tons of chemical explosives. One square mile of the working class quarter of the North End facing the Halifax Narrows was totally destroyed. Six thousand people lost their homes altogether and 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.
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.
The port city of Halifax on Canada’s Atlantic Coast was the major military transit centre to deploy troops and war materiel from Canada’s heartland to Europe, the role assigned it by NATO today. It was also the assembly point for eastbound convoys. Ships coming down the St. Lawrence, from nearby Saint John, or from U.S. ports like Baltimore or New York, came to Halifax and anchored in Bedford Basin until a convoy sailed. 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. The movement by rail of troops and supplies from west to east generated a great deal of wealth for the owners of capital. The first Canadian contingent to Europe sailed from Quebec on October 3, 1914. After that, of all Canadians sent overseas between 1914 and 1918 at least three out of four boarded their transports at Pier Two in Halifax. 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 Canadian government, the British Admiralty and U.S. authorities were directly responsible for the series of events leading to the explosion. The 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 in charge of the port were all aware of the threat.
The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb. British authorities cleared the Mont Blanc on December 6th to enter the harbour, regardless of the misgivings of inspecting officers including the harbour master. This was despite two telegrams sent December 2nd from New York as to the danger of the cargo. Nevertheless, New York went on to demand it be included in a convoy being organized in the inner Bedford Basin scheduled for departure on December 8th. The entrance of an ammunition ship 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 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 the time between the collision and the explosion, no evacuation was ordered. The authorities had never even considered the possibility. After the war Borden treacherously dismissed calls to bring damage claims against Britain or France (responsible for the Mont Blanc), who were culpable under maritime law. The deadliest disaster in Canadian history was a war crime. All the official parties abdicated their social responsibility. Nowhere was the security and safety of the people considered to be a matter of principle that takes precedence over the private 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 self-serving business plans of the shipping companies and the business of war in which the working people are collateral damage. Not a single responsible authority was ever held accountable.
A related development was the official entry of the United States into the war on April 3, 1917. Since then Halifax has played a key role in the movement to integrate Canada into the U.S. empire and its war machine.
By 1917 U.S. capital had begun to seize commanding positions in key sectors of the economy as part of its fierce contest with Britain for Canada. It used the war to expand 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 on the Dartmouth side of the harbour south of the central area. Covering some 400 hectares (990 acres), it opened on February 18, 1918. Within a few years it monopolized gasoline and heating oil throughout the Maritimes.
In parallel, U.S. armed forces entered the city. In 1917, the U.S. Navy established at Halifax a flotilla of fast motor “sub-chasers” and gunboats. Of the seventeen ships tied up or at anchor on December 6, 1917 (another 30-40 were in the Bedford Basin), two were U.S. Navy warships, Old Colony and Old Glory, along with a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, Morrill. In addition, two other U.S.N vessels, Tacoma and Von Steuben, arrived in Halifax five and one-half hours after the explosion. For eight days, they provided armed marines to the Canadian Army under the pretext of security and preventing looting. Seventy-five officers and men from Tacoma and 150 officers and men from Von Steuben patrolled the downtown business district. The American officers and NCOs carried revolvers; the sailors had bayonets. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy reminded the two warships that “both vessels [are] urgently required for [the] prosecution [of the] war and departure should not be delayed beyond [the] time demanded by humanity.” There is no evidence that they discovered any looters.
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 of the harbour to provide anti-submarine air support for convoys. It was closed in 1920 for a period but during the Cold War the Pentagon named CFB Shearwater in the earlier 1980s as a “forward operating base” for the U.S. Strategic Air Command. Its jetties are continuously used today to provide a berth for “visiting” U.S. nuclear warships.
This year marked the 100th Anniversary of the Halifax General Strike which took place beginning May 1, 1919. World War I had ended but it did not end the greed of the power-hungry men who had started it in the first place. The narrative of the Halifax Explosion tends to deny the causal link between the disaster and the stepped up exploitation of the working class and its impoverishment and resistance at that time. 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 building trades workers launched on May Day, 1919 – the largest strike in the history of Halifax. The strike and other general strikes in 1919 such as that of Amherst and Winnipeg remain of great significance to the subsequent development of the Canadian working class movement for emancipation.
Once again media reporting on the significance of the Halifax Explosion is intent on drowning out any discussion of the real problems causing this disaster which persist to the present and which require real solutions. This horrific tragedy is falsified to date as a peculiar “local” disaster, an “Act of God,” and an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime “accident.” American “aid” from New England, which was no more immediate than from Canada, is today depicted as “decisive.” The need for democratic renewal is forgotten in a false narrative that juxtaposes the rights of all with imperialist concepts of “security” and “defence” and the unbridled freedom of operation for NATO. All of this merely emphasizes the absurdity and superficiality of the bourgeoisie’s discourse. It brings to the fore their arrogant disconnect with the real problems that required solutions 102 years ago and still need to be addressed today, more urgently than ever. It cannot be otherwise because what is being memorialized is the usurpation of the movement of the people to exercise control over their lives, land and harbours in the name of “security,” “freedom” and “democracy.”
While times may have changed, the tragedy of the Halifax Explosion, the near-disaster of July-18-19, 1945 from a series of explosions on the inner harbour basin averted by the heroic efforts of first responders, other preventable incidents since then, – including the discovery by fishermen of tonnes of WWII chemical gas containers and more recently depleted uranium shells secretly dumped onto the seabed – 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.
Every year Haligonians confront the “visits” of U.S. nuclear submarines and other deadly NATO warships. Every year they oppose the deployment of Canadian warships to foreign seas far away from our coasts. For 11 years they have raised their fists against the Halifax International Security Forum War Conference hosted by Canada. Through all the rallies, meetings and information, they say “Never Again!”, “Make Halifax and Canada a Zone of Peace!”
In its speech to the November 23, 2019 rally opposing the convening of this U.S. war conference, the No Harbour For War group declared:
“Today Halifax hosts visiting NATO fleets and allied foreign warships on their way to wars of aggression and military exercises. Recently, the Cutlass Fury exercise, the largest in recent years, was an example of military exercises connected to Halifax in the interest of U.S. imperialist aggression around the world. And there is a list of such exercises and wars around the globe connected to Halifax. This is why we are demanding that Halifax Be No Harbour for War! and that Canada should no longer be a factor for future wars.”
“No Harbour For War salutes you for coming out today – let us march on, unite in action with others and build the anti-war movement.”
 The force of this explosion –with one-sixth the power of the first atomic bomb – was so great that people in 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 Dartmouth side of the harbour. The huge black anchor from the Mont Blanc blew south over the peninsula 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 vapourized – 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.
 In fact it is estimated that as many as 3,200 people or more were actually 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 and 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.
 Joseph Scanlon, “Source of Threat and Source of Assistance: The Maritime Aspects of the 1917 Halifax Explosion,” The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, X, No. 4 (October 2000), pp. 39-50.