The Homes Front: The Accommodation Crisis in Halifax, 1941-1951

By White, Jay | Urban History Review, October 1991 | Go to article overview
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The Homes Front: The Accommodation Crisis in Halifax, 1941-1951


White, Jay, Urban History Review


Abstract

No city in Canada was closer to the front lines of battle in 1942 than Halifax, Nova Scotia. But Halifax, like the rest of the country, was unprepared for a long war and the city struggled to cope with the heavy demand placed on her housing stock and municipal services. In one respect, Halifax was ready: the massive federal investment in new piers and rail facilities, begun before the First World War, enabled the port to accommodate huge British battleships and passenger liners converted into troopships. Her commodious harbour provided safe haven from German U-boats to hundreds of Allied merchantmen. But on the domestic front, Halifax could not even begin to manage the effects of a 70% rise in population in less than two years. Few industrial jobs, limited housing construction, a very high transient population, and a reluctance on the part of the federal government to accept responsibility for local problems all contributed to Halifax having a "rather uncomfortable rail seat at the spectacle of war."

--quotation from "Gateway to the World", film produced by the Nova Scotia Department of Industry and Publicity, 1946.

Resume

En 1942, aucune ville du Canada n'etait aussi proche du front que Halifax, en Nouvelle-Ecosse. Pourtant Halifax, pas plus que le reste du pays, n'etait prete a soutenir une longue guerre, et la ville avait beaucoup de mai a satisfaire la lourde demande en logements et en services municipaux. Par contre, son port etait pret. En effet l'enorme investissement national dans la construction de nouvelles jetees et installations ferrovaires, commencee avant la premiere guerre mondiale, permit a Halifax d'accueillir les enormes navires de guerre britanniques et les paquebots affectes au transport des troupes. Son vaste port offrait un asile sur aux containes de navires marchands allies, menaces par les sous-marins allemands. Mais la ville de Halifax etait completement depassee par l'accroissement de sa population (70%) en moins de deux ans. Le peu d'emplois dans l'industrie, le ralentissement de la construction de logements, l'extreme mobilite de la population et le peu d'empressement du gouvemement federal a assumer la responsabilite des problemes locaux firent que Halifax "eut un role difficile a jouer sur la scene de la guerre".

--Citation tiree de "Gateway to the World", un film realise par le ministere de l'industrie et de la publicite de la Nouvelle-Ecosse, en 1946.

Halifax

(The Native Speaks)

I do not think of Halifax
With great ships at her feet,
But only of a leafy lane,
A garden gay and neat.

Only of bright sails skimming
The waters of the Arm,
Of April-blooming dogwood,
October's vibrant charm.

I see no mighty fortress
With stern face to the foe,
But just an old and quiet town
Wrapped in December snow.

For Halifax is cobbled streets,
And tall trees in a park.
And thin mist blown by salty winds,
A foghorn through the dark.

And all the cherished things that warm
The heart, remembering still
The grey and patient city
Beneath its ancient hill. (1)

This quaint portrait evokes an urban landscape far removed from the rough and sometimes disorderly bustle of a seaport and garrison town. Poetic licence is compounded by a twofold irony: these verses appeared in 1949, in the wake of a period during which Halifax faced its greatest wartime challenge. The military presence so obviously downplayed here was more pervasive in the preceding decade than it had ever been in the city's 200-year history. Second, the author was Agnes Foley Macdonald, wife of Canada's wartime Minister of National Defence for Naval Services, Angus L. Macdonald. Few observers were more ideally positioned to celebrate the role Halifax played in the Royal Canadian Navy's maturation into a battle-hardened fighting service. Yet the author chose to express the ambivalence felt by many Haligonians toward the military in general, the Navy in particular, and the changes wrought by a long and difficult war.

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