Zemel’s Biography of the Halifax Explosion Scapegoat

The Halifax Disaster was collateral damage, incidental to the world war in which Canada was so heavily involved

Those familiar with Joel Zemel’s magisterial study of “the extraordinary legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion” will recognize the Scapegoat of the title of his earlier book as Evan Wyatt, chief examining officer for the port of Halifax at the time of the disaster. Zemel has now produced an exemplary and engrossing biography of Commander Wyatt, whose complicated personal life Robert MacNeil, author of Burden of Desire, considers worthy of novelistic treatment. Apart from actual victims, Wyatt was perhaps the most tragic figure of the Halifax Disaster, a decent, honest, competent serving naval officer who did nothing wrong yet was excoriated for having done nothing right.

Betrayal of Trust is a fine accessible study of a character first memorably encountered in John Griffith Armstrong’s 2002 study, The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue. Well-written and illustrated with photographs and textual documents, Zemel’s new book also includes maps and plans, a thorough bibliography and index, as well as a very helpful timeline of events December 1917 through March 1920. The work sheds important light on the wreck commission inquiry set up to investigate the fatal collision in Halifax Harbour. Conducted by the local judge in vice-admiralty, Arthur Drysdale, as if it were a judicial court, the inquiry not only found fact but also found guilt, which was not its purpose under the Canada Shipping Act.

Zemel provides a thick narrative of the wreck commission inquiry which led directly to the arrest, indictment and trial of Wyatt for manslaughter. Though he was acquitted, Wyatt’s career was ruined. Justice Drysdale, for his part, had the effrontery to sit for the lawsuit involving civil liability for the collision, from which he should have recused himself. Incredibly, the litigation began while the wreck commission inquiry was in progress and went from the Exchequer Court to the Supreme Court of Canada and ultimately to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, then the court of last resort for Canada.

The book also helps focus attention on one of the Big-Picture questions: why the catastrophic disaster was never properly investigated by the very government which, while denying any legal liability, was willing, as a quid pro quo, to assume financial responsibility for relief and recovery. Did the Government of Canada encourage or implicitly authorize the prosecution of Commander Wyatt? If so, this was the result of high public policy bearing directly on interallied relations during a critical stage of the Great War.

Commander Wyatt was an innocent man caught up in extraordinary circumstances far beyond his control, the Navy’s fall guy. Yet one must distinguish between criminal responsibility for an avoidable accident and responsibility in a broader, administrative sense in respect of the operations of an important naval base during wartime. Someone had to carry the can and Wyatt, apparently friendless or without influence where it counted, was singled out.

The federal government did not want to know why the Halifax Disaster happened. Scapegoats were therefore needed in order to cover for Ottawa’s failure to appoint a royal commission to investigate the disaster. Scapegoating was the path of least resistance in a country at war, with bigger and better things to do. It may also have been the only course that was politically possible under the circumstances, the disaster occurring in the midst of an extremely bitter federal election campaign. The Halifax Disaster was collateral damage, incidental to the world war in which Canada was so heavily involved. The vessel that exploded in Halifax Harbour was carrying munitions overseas to support the Allied war effort.

Wyatt, though not a victim of the disaster, was nevertheless a casualty of those impersonal geopolitical forces. His biography is an element of history writ large. An odd omission from the bibliography is Janet Maybee’s 2015 study of the other scapegoat, Pilot Mackey: Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey. Both he and Wyatt were scapegoats and both were persecuted. Their life histories are complementary and should be read together.

Betrayal of Trust: Commander Wyatt and the Halifax Explosion
Joel Zemel
New World Publishing

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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