When having dinner with my brother in London, I had a fortune cookie which said that I should “Take a moment to rework your schedule”.
I can’t say I took that advice, as I was on my way to Heathrow and about to embark on a four month coast to coast backpacking adventure across the second largest country in the world, Canada. This is something I had been wanting to do since at least returning from Australia, although I had always planned to return in some fashion since a brief visit 14 years ago.
Starting on the east coast I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was greeted at the airport by Ashley, a friend I had made in Melbourne and who was more than happy to catch up and show me around her home city. Although it is not as big as many others it is one steeped in history, and not just because being on the eastern coast made it easier for European settlers to reach.
To explore some of this one of our first stops was the city’s Citadel, a fortress looking over the surrounding area and heavily armed with numerous cannons positioned looking out over the bay. The city’s main defence in a region constantly fought over by the British and French, it was in fact so well fortified and intimidating that it was never once attacked.
As well as explaining the history of how the Citadel and city developed, there are also several hands on exhibits, including a tailor’s shop where you can try on a historic uniform, part of which is requires a kilt. The decision for me to do this was made as soon as Ashley saw them, but I was happy to give it a go, and soon was being instructed on how to go about actually fastening one up.
To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Citadel is also home to a recreation of a front line trench. While Halifax might be about as far from the fields of Europe as you can get, the port played a large role in both World Wars, in part by serving as the embarkation point for the Canadian Navies who carried and escorted convoys of troops and supplies from North America. The city is also still host to the shipyards today which, in the 1940’s, allowed Canada to boast the world’s third largest Navy.
That’s not to say the city didn’t see any tragedy itself unfortunately, as a collision involving a munitions ship in 1917 killed around 2000 people in the surrounding area and was the largest man made explosion until Hiroshima. Aid poured in from neighbouring provinces and even the United States however, and neither the explosion or the help provided have been forgotten, with Halifax still gifting a Christmas Tree to Boston each year in recognition of their efforts.
Today the city is rightfully proud of how its seafaring heritage has gone from strength to strength, and like any similar boardwalk, there are also stands and shacks set up to make the most of the tourist trade which was beginning to appear for the season. Something I took advantage of by way of having my first Beaver’s Tail: a delicacy which is merely the same shape as the Canadian mascot’s appendage, but is actually a thin slab of fried donut batter, which is then covered with a sweet topping of your choice. Naturally I went for the Maple option.
The boardwalk also boasts a number of artistic sculptures including some drunken lampposts (apparently this was the most humanlike pose the artists could envision), and for the small price of $2.50 you can also take a return ferry journey to the opposite shore in Dartmouth. Affectionately known as “The Darkside” to local Haligonians, there is also the option of strolling along this shoreline as well, although as a more industrialised area it’s main attraction is the view which takes in all of downtown Halifax and the whole boardwalk, which also includes historic vessels and monuments dedicated to those who fought in the wars and for whom Halifax Harbour would be the last place they would leave their footprints on Candian soil.
In contrast to this is Pier 21, the place which was the first step for an even greater number, and is now the site of the Canadian Museum of Immigration. My first port of call here was in a temporary exhibition which focused on the causes and plights of refugees around the world today, dispelling several commonly held beliefs and which also explained Canada’s role in helping many find new homes, including the fact that Canada was the first to recognise and take in refugees who had to flee their own countries for gender or LGBT+ reasons.
The bulk of the museum was dedicated to the history of those who came to make Canada their home, from the earliest settlers to those who passed through Pier 21 itself until it closed in 1971, and beyond. There was also a section which included questions from the Candian citizenship test and I’m happy to say I scored the pass mark of 75%. Although I’m sure the actual test consists of more than just eight questions, it’s nice to know that it could be one possible post-Brexit option.
As with any country however, Canadian immigration has not been without its controversies, something which at one point included hefty charges for Chinese citizens who came to help build the railroad. Even during my time in Halifax the news was reporting on demonstrations and counter protests towards illegal immigrants making their way to Canada across the Quebec border from the U.S.
All in all though, as the start of my adventure it would have been hard to have topped the hospitality of old and new friends alike in a seaport city which perhaps made the biggest contribution to Canada adopting the Multiculturalism Act as an official policy.