I’m back from two weeks’ holiday in Nova Scotia, spent in Halifax and on the south shore. I gained a deeper understanding of Halifax’s strategy significance as Canada’s major Atlantic port during both world wars – a result of its unique setting, with a deep sheltered harbor connected to a basin where a fleet could be marshalled, as well as a nearby hill on which a fort could defend the city and harbor below. Finally, the harbor could be protected by a large island – McNabs Island – at its mouth.
Halifax’s military heritage has been preserved at the Citadel, its role as a disembarkation point for immigrants at the Pier 21 Museum, and its social and commercial history at the Marine Museum of the Atlantic. These three sites are all well-presented and worth visiting.
McNabs Island is a somewhat anomalous contrast. The island is a provincial park and the main military installation, Fort McNab, which contains massive cannons that control the passage to the harbor, is now a national historic site. The island also has beaches, several once-toney homes and cottages, the ruins of an amusement park, hiking trails, forests, a tidal pond, and a plethora of birds, including an endangered species of barn swallows.
Even though it is a provincial part and contains a national historic site, McNabs Island has fallen on hard times. The buildings are decaying. Signage on the trails is minimal. While there are electrical lines to the island, the power has been turned off.
McNabs Island has the potential to be restored. It could be a hiking and nature preserve; it could be an historical site; or it could be a recreational destination, somewhat like Toronto’s Centre Island. Or it could be some combination of the three.
Above all else, McNabs Island needs a vision of what it should be and it needs more resources than the provincial and federal governments are providing. Had there been a clear vision of what McNabs Island could be, it could have been funded as part of the Harper Government’s ubiquitous Economic Action Plan.
The situation is not without hope, however. Friends of McNabs Island (mcnabisland.ca) is a citizen’s group that is working to preserve, publicize, and promote McNabs Island. The group has published a brochure about the island outlining its history and including a detailed map, has undertaken initiatives such as an annual litter cleanup, and has acted as advocates to protect the island – once thwarting a proposal to build a sewage treatment plant on the island.
Friends of McNabs Island also offers walking tours of the island that point out its history and ecology. My travel companion (my older son Alex) and I saw a reference to McNabs Island tours in our travel guide, and the tourist office on Halifax Harbor told us about a ferry company boat that was dropping off and picking up tourists at McNabs. On the Saturday we went, two guides from Friends of McNabs Island also rode the ferry and then offered to lead a tour for the dozen or so visitors, at no charge.
The two guides, Erin and Brooke, are both Dalhousie students working for Friends of McNabs Island as a summer job. They are cheerful, knowledgeable, articulate, and energetic. The standard tour ended at the dock about 40 minutes before the return ferry was to arrive. Alex and I were willing to explore a bit more, so Erin and Brooke took us on a personal tour of Fort McNab. Erin and Brooke struck me as exactly the sort of student I like to have in my classes and are excellent representatives of their programs (environmental studies and management, respectively) at Dal.
Alex and I enjoyed this visit immensely and concluded that it was one of the highlights of our trip to Nova Scotia. We, too, are now Friends of McNabs Island. And we hope that Erin, Brooke, and the other members of the Friends of McNabs Island will stimulate renewed interest and reinvestment in McNabs Island, so that it again becomes a favorite destination for both Haligonians and tourists.