Nova Scotia

New tour tells Halifax's history through Indigenous, black perspectives

A different kind of Halifax bus tour is covering a side of Halifax's history not usually honoured with memorials or plaques.

'For once, we're telling our history, and not yours,' says Indigenous elder Billy Lewis

The tour group stands at the platform where until earlier this year, a statue of Halifax's founder Edward Cornwallis stood. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

It's a sunny Saturday morning and a different kind of Halifax bus tour is about to set out for the first time, one that covers a side of Halifax's history not necessarily honoured with memorials or plaques.

The tour guides are Isaac Saney, a Dalhousie University professor who specializes in black Nova Scotian history, and Billy Lewis, an Indigenous elder.

"They're going to hear a history they're not going to hear anywhere else," said Lewis.

The tour tells the history of Halifax as it was lived by the city's Indigenous, black and working-class populations, and is put on by Our Rising, a local non-profit. Saturday's tour was a pilot project, but to meet demand another tour is planned for next month.

Slave trading in downtown Halifax

The first stop is Queen Street, across from Citadel Hill.

"Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Canada have a history of slavery, which people often don't know about and some people actually deny," said Saney. "So, going to the places where slaves were actually sold ... has a visceral impact on people. There is a deep reflection that takes place."

Turtle Grove

The next stop is in Dartmouth at what was once Turtle Grove, a small Mi'kmaq village located on the shore that was obliterated a century ago by the Halifax Explosion when two ships collided in the harbour.

"When that explosion occurred, the people in the Mi'kmaq community were standing on the shore," said Lewis. "They were wiped out in a moment's notice."

Lewis said many Indigenous people died in the disaster, but you wouldn't know that from the history books.

Indigenous elder Billy Lewis says the tour offers a history of Halifax that people are 'not going to hear anywhere else.' (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Next, the bus drives over the MacKay Bridge toward Africville, a community that was demolished in the 1960s so the bridge could be built.

Many of the residents in the community were descendents of former slaves from the United States, who were given their freedom in exchange for fighting for the British.

Over the years, the city of Halifax neglected Africville, refusing to bring in simple services like water and sewage.

A present-day reminder of the community's past is the replica church that houses the Africville Museum. The tour includes a visit there.

Dalhousie University professor Isaac Saney leads a tour group through Halifax. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Dalhousie student Chris Fernandes is one of the people on the tour.

"I think we often glorify tourism as this fun and exciting thing," he said. "To do a tour like this is not only just to see and look and take photos as tourists would, but to live it and understand it."

A replica of the church that was once in Africville houses a museum. The black community was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the MacKay Bridge. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Dalhousie student Mary Macgowan said this isn't like any tour she's ever done.

"It gives you a more nuanced understanding of the actual history of the town, because otherwise you only know half of it," she said.

Halifax's changing north end

After a trip to the museum, the tour heads to the city's north end, a historically black, Indigenous and working-class neighbourhood that's rapidly changing, said Saney.

The tour goes past Uniacke Square, which is where Africville residents were relocated to after their community was demolished.

"Now condos are being built that are completely out of the price range of most of the members of the black Nova Scotian community and the Mi'kmaq who live here," said Saney.

'We're not rewriting history. We're telling our history.'

The last stop on the tour is Cornwallis Park, named after the city's founder, Edward Cornwallis. Near the centre of the park stands an empty platform that until earlier this year housed a statue in honour of Cornwallis.

Cornwallis put a bounty on the heads of Mi'kmaq people. Indigenous groups and others long protested, saying the statue should be taken down. Others argued the statue should remain, that removing it would erase history.

For Lewis, this spot encapsulates what his tour is trying to do. For him, removing the statue doesn't erase history — it's a way of reclaiming the history of others that has long been erased.

"We're not rewriting history," he said. "We're telling history. And for once, we're telling our history, and not yours."


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.