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Rewriting the history of the Halifax Explosion

The Story

How about a helping of Canadiana with your burger and fries? McDonald's has started giving away free comic books about the 1917 Halifax explosion at 900 of its restaurants across Canada. Published by McClelland & Stewart and the CRB Foundation Heritage Project, the True North Comics, The Halifax Explosion books are seen as an innovative way to keep history alive for young Canadians, explains this CBC TV report. But not everyone is thrilled. Survivors like Annie Welsh object to the format. She says a comic book seems like an insensitive way to tell such a tragic tale. Historians such as Janet Kitz, author of Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery, are disappointed with the number of historical errors contained in the comic book. One error involves the real life hero Vincent Coleman. Coleman was a train dispatcher who knew about the dangerous cargo aboard the Mont-Blanc. Despite receiving orders to vacate the building, he stayed behind to send warnings to Halifax-bound trains. Coleman died at his desk from the blast. But in the comic book, Coleman is shown running out into the streets and into schools, warning people about the impending explosion. "What a good idea," says Kitz, "but what a pity it's not accurate." But McClelland & Stewart defends the comic book saying it successfully tells the story of the 1917 Halifax explosion. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: Feb. 14, 1997
Guests: Dinah Forbes, Janet Kitz, Annie Welsh
Reporter: Clare MacKenzie
Duration: 8:14
Photo: True North Comics, The Halifax Explosion published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. and CRB Foundation Heritage Project

Did You know?

• The tragedy of the explosion is also kept alive through the paintings of Arthur Lismer. The Group of Seven painter was living in Halifax, teaching at Victoria School of Art (now Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) at the time of the explosion. Lismer drew first-hand accounts of the devastation. About 20 of Lismer's sketches and drawings were published around the time of the Halifax explosion.

• The CRB Foundation was established in 1986 by the Bronfman family in Montreal. One of its goals is to support initiatives such as the popular Heritage Moment TV spots, which contribute to the enhancement of "Canadianism." There was a Heritage Moment about the Halifax Explosion. Like the True North Comics book on the explosion, it was controversial, because it showed Vince Coleman running out into the streets.

• In 1992 a Lismer painting called Sorrow, painted around 1918, was found by geophysicist Alan Ruffman. Ruffman tells of his "discovery" to CBC's Peter Gzowski.

• Annie Welsh, who was just 23 months old when the tragedy struck, survived because she was blown into an ashpan under the stove even as the house was levelled. Her mother and brother, who were at the window, were killed. Ashpan Annie, as she became known, was discovered a day later amid ashes that kept her warm in a howling snowstorm. She passed away in July 2010 at age 95. 



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