It was a balmy 13 C on Wednesday, the air carrying barely a hint of breeze or cloud.
Not at all, then, like the day nearly a century ago when the hellfire rained down upon the harbourside of north-end Dartmouth, where I happened to be walking.
The farther south you head along the CNR train tracks, the more the industrial hum of the Tufts Cove generating station recedes, making it easier to envision how it was a century ago when Mi’kmaq lived up and down that side of the harbour, as they had for as long as anyone can remember.
I passed a couple of plastic beer cups, a Javex bottle, a swimming noodle, along with a stone foundation which, for for all I know, is all that remains of the old Oland Brewery, which was razed in the Halifax Explosion.
Eventually, if I angled my eyes a certain way and used my imagination, I could see what the Barletts and Pauls, the Brookses, the Gloades and the other residents of the community of Turtle Grove saw when they looked out into the narrow part of what their people called Jipuktuk, “the Great Harbour,” early on Dec. 6, 1917.
Yesterday morning I was at the annual Nova Scotia Heritage conference where Bob Gloade, chief of the Millbrook First Nation, told a room full of people what happened next.
How the plume of smoke from the Mont Blanc, after its collision with the Imo, drew Mi’kmaq people toward the shore, including kids on the way to school.
How, when the terrible explosion finally came, Mi’kmaq folks were instantly obliterated by the blast, or burned to death in the fires that followed, among the 2,000 casualties from the awful disaster.
Mrs. William Nevin, an elder, perished along with her grandchild, Chief Gloade said. So did Hanna and Rosie Bartlett, the daughters of Jerry Longcloud, a well-known Mi’kmaq oar-maker named Frank Brooks, a pair of teenage boys from the Sack and Labrador families, along with two women in their early ’30s.
“It was remembered,” Chief Gloade said of the explosion’s impact on his people when we spoke after his presentation. “People knew of it and talked about it, particularly the descendants of those who were killed.”
Turtle Grove, also known as Turtle Cove, has always been a special place for the Mi’kmaq.
“Being able to support yourself, to live, to eat, all depended on being able to access land, but also the market to sell your art or your goods,” Gloade told the room. “Turtle Grove, where we had been coming for hundreds if not thousands of years, was perfect.”
In the 1890s, in fact, the Mi’kmaq families who lived permanently there began pushing to establish a formal reserve at Turtle Grove.
What ensued was the usual sad story: Indian Affairs dragged its heels. Meanwhile a family from Halifax somehow bought the land and told the Mi’kmaq to find somewhere else to live.
That was not so easy to do. No one in the Tuft’s Cove area adjacent to the Turtle Grove grounds would sell.
The explosion, Gloade says, settled the reserve question as far as the federal government was concerned. The surviving Mi’kmaq from Turtle Grove were moved to Millbrook, near Truro, or the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Shubenacadie.
They always wanted their old land back. Now, a century later, it is finally happening.
Already the Millbrook First Nation has obtained nearly nine acres of land at the old Shannon Park site, just north of where Turtle Grove once stood, and is negotiating for seven more acres nearby. That’s to go with the 10 acres of harbour land in the area the band has obtained from the Halifax Port Authority.
“We’re looking to acquire any additional development blocks that are adjacent to the existing site,” says Gloade.
In time he envisions a large-scale mix of residential, commercial and recreational properties standing on the old Mi’kmaq land.
That community will be a place where the 1,800 members of Millbrook — half of whom live outside the Truro community — can live and reap the economic rewards of development.