“Halifax’s Dirty Little Secret’

Hey Developers! If you want to build over graves, here is a nice bit of downtown real estate for you!


The front page of the Chronicle Herald newspaper (the ‘provincial’ newspaper of Nova Scotia) had this as their front page headline today:

Mass graves complicate former library’s future

You can read the article HERE

You can imagine how swiftly I picked up a copy of the newspaper to read the article.  How very informative and disappointing a piece it was all at the same time. It was all about business developers wanting to purchase the land from the city of Halifax to erect office towers, condos or the some other profit making scheme on the property.

The problem is, that piece of property, although it is not formerly acknowledged or marked is well known to be the burying ground of the inmates from the second Halifax Poor House and the Bridewell prison that stood on the grounds where the new multi million dollar library stands now.

I read the long-ish piece, (3/4 of a page altogether) with aggravation…..Why wasn’t the reporter telling the public why there was a mass grave under the old library on Spring Garden Road?? Why wasn’t the reporter writing about how this mass grave came to be there? The article went on and on and about how various council members discussed dealing with the ‘complications’* of the mass graves without explaining where the mass graves came from.

Finally, on the 22nd paragraph  well into page two (when most readers would have lost interest by now unless they are specifically interested in the subject such as you and I are) it was finally written:

“As soon as we figure out what to do with it, we need to research the area and recognize that a poorhouse burial ground is located there.”

Yes. Yes you do. And acknowledge those who are buried there as well.

But very little was said about the why the poor house burial ground was located there, it’s lack of maintenance, why the poor house inmates and criminals were dumped together in that grave (because we criminalize poverty in case you didn’t already know this), how they were buried (it wasn’t just a lack of a head stone – many were buried stacked like cord wood especially during an epidemic that hit the most vulnerable – such as the poor- first) or how they lived in the poor house that made them vulnerable to an early death. 

Finally, someone was quoted as calling the unmarked, unrecognized graveyard as “Halifax’s dirty little secret”.

But it is not so little. It’s only dirty because the provincial and municipal governments allowed it to be with the way they and their supporters treated people who did not have little pieces of paper or coin we call money.  It’s dirty because people were treated as less than human because they were women without male support, because they were not white skinned, because they were children without parents, because they were sick without an income, because they were injured on the job and subsequently booted out their employers’ doors.

It’s dirty because it is still happening.

Poverty doesn’t look like the same as it did at the time of the poor houses. Now we have grossly inadequate social assistance and an Employment Insurance program that is largely inaccessible to many workers. Now, instead of suffering, going cold and hungry in a large institutional building, people today go cold and hungry alone or with their children in individual apartments or run down houses so we don’t have to see them stuffed into a building overrun with misery and disease. So much better! (In case you’ve missed, I’m being totally sarcastic with that last sentence.)

Personally, I feel this piece of land must be left as a monument to the poor and sick who were buried there simply because they were poor and sick. The old court house should never have been built there in the first place when the city was given the property in 1883 to keep as a park ‘in perpetuity’ but make it into a museum of social history. Keep the land as a graveyard; recognize it; acknowledge it and use it as an educational tool for all people. “Look students!!  This was the way we treated people just because they were poor! We can do better than that! Let’s start doing better than that before history in one hundred years judges us as heartless and barbaric as we are judging those from one hundred and fifty years ago.”

Oh, and if the developers still insist on building over the graves of people in a bid to erect another ceaseless profit mongering status piece that will be considered ‘retro’ in twenty  years, there is a lovely treed cemetery just across the street. It’s called The Old Burying Ground. Why isn’t anyone seeking to put a hunk of capitalist concrete on that property?

If it’s okay to consider building on the graves of the poor, then it must okay to consider building over the graves of the rich. Because we are a developed province where everyone is treated equal. Right?

* the word  ‘complicates’ implies that it is the bodies of the poor in the mass grave that is the problem. The problem has been and continues to be the manner in which our culture treats poor people by putting them in such a place.

Meal time at a Poor House

‘Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse’


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Holidays! Thank you to all who have been reading and supporting this website devoted to recording the history of the poor houses not only in Nova Scotia but also in other parts of the world. May your holidays be bright, cheerful and full of joy.

I am putting this post up today to remind us all that poverty doesn’t just happen on the holidays; poverty happens all year ’round. We tend to give more and pay more attention to the poor on the holidays but once these days pass, we return to blaming the poor for their own plight instead of examining a capitalist culture that chews up and spits out workers and puts them in poverty.

Today I want to share with you the poem “Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse” by journalist George Robert Sims.  It tells the story of an old trader John who is in the workhouse on Christmas day when the Guardians of the workhouse (the elite who donated money and food) come to watch the inmates enjoy their Christmas pudding. John becomes upset and refuses to eat his pudding, regaling the story of how his wife, Nance, died a year before on this date because the workhouse refused to help them.

The following is a recording of the poem done in 1912 by Robert Hilliard on a Victoria 78.  It is a dark poem and a stark reminder that poverty happens all year.


Anthropology Degree in Poor Houses!

I just came across this on my Facebook feed….it’s from Kings’ County Museum and it is volunteer genealogist Wayne Baltzer and a student, Adeena Fox, looking at poor house information. Wayne Baltzer helped me a great deal when I was writing my book A Wholesome Horror; Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. I am thrilled to see a student taking on the task of studying poor houses in detail. More attention is needed to how the dominant culture treated their poor. How our dominant culture treats the poor today will certainly be studied in another several decades or a century from now and, trust me, we are not going to look a whole lot better than we did in the times of Queen Elizabeth I.


Finding Your Canadian Story…the Poor

Good Sunday Morning Everyone! I’ve been busy selling books from my new business, Moose House Publications at local Christmas Farmers’ Markets. A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia is still selling very well. People see the photo of the old Marshalltown Alms House and stop in their tracks. Many have stories to tell me about the house, relatives that were in poor houses or relatives who worked for the poor house.

A friend of mine and follower of this blog, Wilfed Allan, (whom I lovingly call “Willard”) sent me a link to an interesting blog by Candice MacDonald that I want to share with you on here. It has some links to seeking information of your ancestors who may have lived for some time in a poor house in central and eastern Canada. I tried contacting her through her blog but no luck so I am sharing it here anyway.


The above image is the poor house from Berlin, Ontario. Candice MacDonald’s blog post is Finding Your Canadian Story