A Mi'kmaw playwright is 'picking up the pieces' of her family's history 100 years after their traditional Mi'kmaq community faced the full force of the Halifax Explosion.

On Dec. 6, 1917, the Norwegian steamship Imo was cruising through Halifax Harbour, carrying Belgian relief supplies, when it rammed into the French munitions boat Mont-Blanc, which was carrying TNT and fuel destined for war efforts. The collision started a fire, and the resulting explosion killed nearly 2,000 people in the blink of an eye.

Along the shore, less than two kilometres from the explosion's epicentre, sat the small Mi'kmaq village of Turtle Grove, or Kepe'kek, in the area known today as Tuft's Cove in Dartmouth.

Cathy Martin Turtle Grove

Playwright Catherine Martin is performing Picking up the Pieces at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A tragic story

In her play, Picking Up the Pieces, Mi'kmaw Catherine Martin relives the story of her great-aunt Rachel Cope, who lived with her husband John and their many children in Turtle Grove.

The play listens in on Cope as she explains to her granddaughter Douzay the devastation their family faced after the explosion. Martin plays both the roles of her great-aunt and the spirit of her great-great-grandmother. 

"Needless to say, it is an emotional experience," Martin said, adding that she didn't intend on playing the role herself.

The play is part of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia called Kepe'kek from the Narrows of the Great Harbour. The photo-based exhibit, running until January 2018, showcases the work of Indigenous artists focused on the Indigenous community. Martin was asked by organizers to perform as well, which Martin agrees adds to its depth. 

"It's a tragic story, and it's an important story for me to understand," she said.

"That some of them survived is a miracle. The Mi'kmaq tradition is one of oral history. Because many died that day and since, their story was nearly lost."  

Tufts Cove School

Rachel Cope, her brother and her cousin, were watching the burning boat from near the 'Indian school' when it exploded, killing thousands in an instant. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Born into chaos

Martin said the play is based on an interview her great-aunt and -uncle Rachel and John Cope gave to a family member in 1946. A friend of hers, writing a book on the community, had come across a transcript and gave her a copy to be checked by her family. 

In the record, the deaths of 29 Mi'kmaq from Turtle Grove and surrounding villages are listed. At least five of them were family members, Martin said, including her great-uncles George Francis "Nanan" Cope and Thomas Henry Cope, ages three and 12, respectively.

Other entries on the list of the dead read:

  • William Paul, 4hrs [old]. Son of William Paul and Mary Catherine Paul. The child of Bill and Mary died about four hours after birth ... two or three hours after Father Underwood baptized him.
  • William Howard Nevin: 1 [year old], son of Richard Nevin and Madeline (Doucette). Was blown away. Found still alive some distance from the ruins of the Nevin house died a few days later.

The interview record is just one of "the pieces" Martin's picked up on her journey to understand the lives of her ancestors. As she scanned the list of the dead, Martin said she started to realize what her great-aunt Rachel had gone through. 

"She was on Nevin's hill, near the school house with her brother Henry and her cousin Louis," she said.

"They went to get a look at the burning boat and were up there when it happened. Louis died instantly; Henry died soon after. Rachel lived to tell the tale."

Feeling the horror

Martin said she was told that Rachel rarely talked about the tragedy, so she's thankful to have seen the record. Stepping into Rachel's persona for the play, her interview in mind, took her back in time, Martin said.  

"I really began to feel the horror. Those that weren't by killed the explosion, got swept away by the waves ... children, many of them. What could they do?" 

Curaca

A scorched section of Turtle Grove, seen here behind the half-sunk Curaca. (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, 207.1.184/10)

That reality hits Martin hard, she said, because her family has a "strange relationship" with tragic fires.

Her grandfather's brother died in an accident involving a fire and hot scalding water, Martin said. In the 1970s, her uncle Gilbert was killed in an accidental house fire, and in 2011, her son, Thomas Gabriel Martin, died in an accidental car fire outside Halifax. 

"What is it with fire?" Martin asks herself.

"It all started with the explosion, but maybe it goes back further. You try to find ... more than whatever is right in front of you. Why am I on this journey now?" 

Honouring the dead

For 10 years, Martin has been holding a shoreline drum ceremony on Dec. 6 at Tuft's Cove, speaking the names of those who died in the explosion and making tobacco offerings to the water, honouring their lives and helping them to "continue their spiritual journeys."

Pier 6 after Halifax Explosion

Turtle Grove was just over a kilometre from the explosion's epicentre in what is now the Halifax Shipyard. Across the open harbour, the Mi'kmaq villages faced the full force of the explosion. (Nova Scotia Museum)

Martin said that three years ago, she found out one of the names she was honouring belonged to her great-uncle, Henry.

"That was no coincidence," she said.

"I feel that my [ancestors] are really guiding me to tell this story.... I've been picking up these pieces here and there. Sand and gravel, you know? Trying to figure it all out." 

Martin said telling the stories of Turtle Grove is another way to help educate the public on the Mi'kmaq's shared history with Nova Scotians. She said she believes that few records remain about Turtle Grove because of racism and discrimination the Mi'kmaq faced in that period, "and that we still face today," she added.

The land surrounding Turtle Grove is on the table for major redevelopment. Martin said she wants to have the land and waterline examined by archeologists before that happens.

More fragments of Mi'kmaq history, the legacy of the Halifax Explosion, and her family, may still be resting there.