Edited Excerpt from Barry Cahill’s Rebuilding Halifax

Learning from post-crisis response

This excerpt from Barry Cahill’s Rebuilding Halifax: A History of the Halifax Relief Commission shows how a terrible disaster provided an opportunity to modernize a city and create sweeping policy to help its residents well beyond their hour of greatest needs. On the flipside, the relief commission that was formed ignored the old charitable adage of aiming to put itself out of business by achieving its mission and eliminating society’s need for its services.

In doing so, Cahill argues, the agency—“a free agent with easy access to political leverage on the federal scene”—robbed provincial and municipal governments (and therefore citizens) the opportunity to determine their own fates. Therein lie lessons of what todo and what notto do in the face of disaster, when trying to build back better.


Historically, the most significant aspect of the Halifax Relief Commission, apart from its achievement, is its sheer uniqueness. Is there another instance of the federal government setting up a special operating agency in response to a catastrophic disaster, which the provincial government then incorporated with paramount powers rivalling, if not exceeding, those of the municipality where the disaster occurred? The commission’s evolution over nearly six decades had less and less to do with emergency management and more and more to do with its desire and capability to perpetuate itself. It did not want for resources, material or moral. The commission’s greatest achievement was recovery in all its problematic diversity—rehabilitation, reconstruction, victim compensation, rehousing, town planning, urban renewal.

The commission recreated the “urban morphology” (Janice Miller’s term) of Halifax’s North End section that constituted the Devastated Area. The commission’s most obvious and best-known legacy is the so-called “Hydrostone District,” a visionary exercise in urban planning that helped modernize the city of Halifax. In other respects, too, the commission was ahead of its time. It developed and implemented a town-planning scheme long before the City of Halifax did; and, through its hiring of qualified professionals at the very outset, helped introduce scientific social work to Nova Scotia. Through its cooperation with, support of and, latterly, direct involvement in the work of the Halifax branch of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee (afterwards the Massachusetts-Halifax Health Commission), the commission also contributed significantly to the improvement of public health in Halifax.

All these contributions however, were tied to the early and most productive years. On the other side of the ledger, the commission’s longevity is a black mark. After 1921, when recovery had effectively concluded, the commission magnified its residual tasks—property management and services to pensioners and other survivors—assuming an air of indispensability with a view to indefinite self-perpetuation. For its part, the federal government lost interest and largely forgot about the commission—except as a useful patronage plum for local Liberals—because, after 1919, it was no longer giving it money.

The commission, left to its own devices, endeavoured to respond “creatively” to the ambiguous situation in which it found itself. By way of filling the vacuum, the commission not only adapted to its shrinking responsibilities but also skillfully deployed its finite financial resources, exploiting its statutory tax-free status as well as opportunities accruing from its being a large landholder and landlord. Investment income and astute divestment of real estate (much of it expropriated) sustained its revenue stream, enabled it to meet its obligations to survivors and occasionally to act as a community benefactor. For example, on the occasion of the disaster’s 46thanniversary—6 December 1963—Chairman Butler announced that the commission would contribute $100,000 towards the cost of building the Halifax North Memorial Library, to stand on a site near the former Devastated Area. Opened in October 1966, the library honours the memory of disaster victims.

Though it made much of its relationship with the federal minister of finance to whom it informally reported, the commission was for all practical purposes a free agent with easy access to political leverage on the federal scene. Its David-and-Goliath contest with the City of Halifax, which poisoned civic politics for decades, was a very unequal one, from which the city did not emerge victorious. From the later 1940s onwards, when postwar retrenchment and accommodation made the commission’s continuing existence harder to justify, the City of Halifax became much more aggressive in its dealings with the commission. Despite attracting sensational press publicity, which it did not want and did not know how to effectively counter, the commission resisted all efforts to disband until it was ready to be disbanded; it even influenced how its sole remaining function—pension administration—would be carried on after its demise.

The commission appreciated that its fate depended on how well it cultivated the powers in Ottawa; consequently, much of its energy was directed towards that goal. Its strategy of hiding behind the coattails of the minister of finance worked amazingly well. By the end of the Second World War, no one much cared about the commission except its pensioners and the cash-starved City of Halifax, which potentially stood to gain a great deal of money—depending on the final disposition of the commission’s residual assets. However, the city’s naive assumption that it would as a matter of course directly benefit from the commission’s “surplus” after its demise proved fatal to its case. That the commission was so successful for so long in resisting pressure from the city was due, at least in part, to its mastery of brinkmanship, knowledge born of long experience dealing with Ottawa.

It can be inferred that Ottawa never took Halifax’s pretensions seriously, though it sometimes wanted to appear to be doing so for the sake of politics. At the root of Ottawa’s disinterestedness was that successive ministers of finance did not wish to be seen to be involving the federal government in what amounted to a social war between the commission and the city—two big fish in a very small pond. Both parties were invited from time to time to state their case to Ottawa and both did so—with more seriousness than they were received. For the city of Halifax, however, the sense of injustice was real and present. In the end, no benefit would ever accrue to Halifax as a result of the commission’s dissolution, which it had been agitating for over the previous thirty years.

A virtual second government where the Devastated Area was concerned, the commission in its early days constituted a powerful administrative tribunal at a time when the regulatory state had not yet emerged. The Second World War changed all that, and the commission benefitted from the new paradigm. A novelty when it was established, the commission survived, even flourished, long after the regulatory state had become mainstream.

The worst disaster in Canadian history was met by a unique intervention by the federal government in municipal affairs. Were there—should there have been—constitutional implications? Though no lawyer served on the commission after 1940, one suspects the commission’s modus operandi was the legacy of its first and most influential chair—T.S. Rogers (1918–1928)—an exceedingly clever and resourceful corporate lawyer who endeavoured successfully to maximize the commission’s powers and freedom to act. If post-disaster Halifax was, as the title of one unidentified contemporaneous article proclaimed, “the town that was blown into progress,” then the commission was the mighty wind that blew it thither. It had the perspicacity to see that the Halifax Disaster, despite its unremitting horrors, was opportunity writ large—the means of bringing the former Devastated Area, and indeed the whole city, forward into the zeitgeist of the twentieth century.

Written By

Barry Cahill’s first introduction to the Halifax Disaster was walking near the Hydrostone neighbourhood in the early 1970s and coming upon the building at the northeast corner of Young and Isleville Streets, which then housed the offices of the Halifax Relief Commission. He has since completed a scholarly history of the commission. He holds graduate degrees from Dalhousie and Oxford and is author of the official history of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, which has been accepted for publication by McGill-Queen’s University Press. He is currently working on a biography of the late former chief justice of Nova Scotia, the Honourable Lorne O Clarke QC.

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