“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

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