In early 2017, the Nova Scotia Family of Museums held a competition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada by celebrating a selection of Nova Scotians to be celebrated in the Vanguard: 150 Years celebration exhibit that was being held at various Nova Scotia Museums for a time. The exhibit was to highlight a list of Nova Scotians whose lives, innovations and/or contributions that had made a significant impact both provincially and nationally and went to represent the heart of Canada.
John Johnston, the researcher and writer of the exhibit project, researched a list of potential candidates from each decade from 1867-2017. For each decade, one person and their particular contribution/life's work would be reviewed and chosen to be posted within the traveling exhibit. Johnston shared on the topic, "[It] was a wonderful project to work on, seeking out inspiring individuals from across the province who have made such a difference in our country. These women and men offer wonderful examples of Nova Scotians of today to admire and reflect upon."
Forty-five people were considered, all inspiring individuals from across the province. Two representing each of the 16 decades since 1860 were selected. Those chosen range from priests to poets, activists to artists, all creating change and inspiration.
Below is the list of the 32 Vanguard persons:
Joseph Howe, 1804-1873
Ironic though it is, the first person we profile in this celebration of Nova Scotians after Confederation is the most outspoken opponent of that very Confederation.
Before the 1860s, Joseph Howe was a legendary journalist championing freedom of the press and then a politician leading the fight for responsible government. In addition, he was a travel writer and poet. Regardless of which hat he was wearing, Howe was an ardent Nova Scotia patriot. His particular patriotism, like that of many other Nova Scotians of that era, included a deep attachment to the British Isles.
That imperial patriotism, however, made Howe oppose Confederation. He felt Nova Scotia was going to lose more than it gained by joining a union with the rest of British North America. Truth be told, the majority of Nova Scotians in 1867 felt the same way Howe did. Yet Nova Scotia did enter Confederation, moving from being an overseas colony of Great Britain to a province in the new Dominion of Canada.
Howe eventually accepted the new reality, after lobbying that his native province be given better terms. Joseph Howe then entered federal politics, but the fire of his younger days was diminished. With failing health, he left politics to accept an appointment as Nova Scotia's Lieutenant-Governor. It was in that position that the great journalist, patriot and public speaker died. Though long gone, Joseph Howe is still fondly remembered as one of Nova Scotia's most loyal and passionate sons.
Maria Frances Ann Morris, 1810-1875
Maria Morris was one of those individuals who could infuse science into her art. Or was it art into her science? Her specialty was botanically accurate drawings of plants.
Maria grew up in a family where female education was considered important, not an afterthought. That was rarer than one might think early in the 19th century. As a young adult, she attended Dalhousie College where she received training in art. Outside those classes in technique, the local legendary polymath Titus Smith encouraged Maria to depict wildflowers. In the early 1830s, during breaks from her studies at Dalhousie, Maria operated schools in Halifax for teaching drawing and painting to other young women. In 1840, she would marry Garret Miller of La Have, and later have several children. Yet it was her artistic output that gave — and continues to give — her renown.
Between 1839 and 1867, Maria Morris published four series of outstanding botanical lithographs. Each collection was sold to paying subscribers, and each was filled with striking illustrations of wildflowers. They are some of the earliest botanical sketches created in Canada. In total, Maria Morris's published output consisted of 99 sheets presenting 146 species of flowers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and eastern Canada. The sketches can be seen equally as floral art and as studies in botanical science.
Maria Morris's work was praised in London, England and some of her botanical paintings were featured at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867.
Sir Charles Tupper, 1821-1915
It may be a little odd — but then maybe not — that over the past century Nova Scotians have generally showed more pride in the memory of anti-Confederation Joseph Howe than for that union's great Nova Scotia champion, Sir Charles Tupper. Maybe we prefer the rousing iconoclast over he who headed up the winning side.
But let's be clear: Tupper was a great achiever throughout his long life. Born in Amherst and educated at Horton Academy (forerunner of Acadia University), Tupper graduated with an MD from the University of Edinburgh in 1843, aged 22. He would practice medicine for decades, even after he entered politics. In fact, Tupper was the first president of the Canadian Medical Association.
Dr. Tupper entered politics in 1855, and became Nova Scotia's premier in 1864. It was in that position that he introduced a system of public education and expanded the railways. He also aimed to achieve a union of all three Maritime Provinces — until politicians from Canada (today's Ontario and Quebec) asked to attend an 1864 meeting of Maritime politicians in Charlottetown. Tupper and others were won over by a larger vision: a union of all British North America. From then on, Tupper was an advocate of Confederation and committed Nova Scotia to the union, though an 1867 election would soundly defeat his side after the fact.
Tupper switched to federal politics, and held several different senior portfolios. In 1896, he became Canada's sixth Prime Minister. However, he would hold the post for only 69 days, the shortest term in Canadian history. He is best remembered as one of the key architects of Canada's Confederation.
George Brown, 1839-1875
Nova Scotia has produced many great rowers and paddlers over the past 150 years. The tradition began in our seaside province back in the1800s and continues today, though now more commonly on lakes and rivers with canoes and kayaks. The most renowned "oarsman" of the early period — as they were called back when rowing was a major spectator sport that attracted huge crowds — was a working fisherman from Herring Cove. His name was George Brown.
Brown adapted his strength and skill in rowing a fishing dory out at sea to single shell racing competitions in harbours. Beginning in 1864, George Brown won the single-scull championship held at Halifax year after year, taking home the much-coveted Cogswell Belt. After his fifth straight win, the race organizers told Brown he could keep the belt permanently, because it was obvious he could not be beat. It was not long before Brown began to race against the best scullers in the world.
The Halifax Aquatic Carnival began in 1871, and it attracted international rowers from England and the United States. Brown finished a mere four seconds behind the world champion the first time he competed at that level. In 1873 and 1874, in multiple races, it was the fisherman from Herring Cove who prevailed. Brown had become the fastest rower in the world at single sculls at the five-mile distance.
While training to defend his crown in 1875, however, the local fisherman suffered a stroke. George Brown was only 36. For his accomplishments, he has been inducted into both Nova Scotia's and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. There is also a monument to him at Herring Cove.
Peter Wilmot, 1824-1932
Over the thousands of years, the Mi’kmaq have lived in what we call Nova Scotia they have had hundreds of chiefs. One of their many leaders was the amazing Peter Wilmot.
His forest expertise was legendary. One story goes like this: One day Peter went to the woods where the moose were yarding to smoke his pipe. Sitting down against a moose that was asleep, Peter lit his pipe. As the story goes, sometime later the moose woke up. "Eh, Pielo" (Oh, Peter—it's you) he said, and then promptly went back to sleep.
As a political leader, Peter Wilmot was first a Chief of Pictou Landing. Then, in the 1870s, he chanced to be in the woods near Truro. Impressed by the resources he saw in what we know today as Millbrook, Wilmot approached the Indian Agent to see if that then forested land in Colchester County might be set aside for the Mi’kmaq in exchange for less attractive land they were living on elsewhere in the Truro area. Wilmot’s proposal was accepted, with an initial 35 acres set aside. That reserve would expand in later years, and the Millbrook First Nation, founded by Chief Peter Wilmot, became one of the most dynamic reserves in Nova Scotia.
Peter Wilmot would live long and well. When photographed on his 108th birthday in 1932, in a spectacularly beaded coat and cap and wearing moccasins he had made, Wilmot said: “I have never taken a doctor’s medicine in my life … I always use my own barks and herbs.”
William Dawson Lawrence, 1817-1886
The 19th century in Nova Scotia was a time of legendary shipbuilders. Around the province, they conceived and constructed hundreds of wooden ships — and no one was better at the trade than Maitland-based W. D. Lawrence.
Lawrence was born in Ireland, but came to Nova Scotia as an infant when his parents moved to Hants County. He was educated by his mother and then attended a school in Five Mile River. Then, like thousands of others during that era, he was drawn to building ships. He started out as an apprentice in Dartmouth shipyards, designing his first ship for an employer in 1849. It was not long, however, before Lawrence began to design, build and operate ships for himself and his partners. Those ships were usually destined not for coastal trade but for deep sea voyages, carrying cargoes anywhere in the world. That trade and the eventual sale of the vessels made W. D. Lawrence a wealthy man.
In addition to the world of ships and commerce, Lawrence was a justice of the peace and had a career in politics. He was elected to the provincial assembly in 1863 as an advocate of free public education and broadening the vote to include all males, not just property owners. When the idea of Confederation came along, he was adamantly opposed.
In 1874, Lawrence oversaw the construction of the William D. Lawrence (2,459 tons; 262 feet long), the largest wooden ship ever built in the Maritimes. It was one of the largest square-rigged vessels in the world. Building it was costly, but Lawrence recouped the investment and made great profits from the ship over time, and more when he sold it in 1883.
Lawrence also found time to write. He published an eyewitness account of his great ship's initial three-year voyage to exotic ports and wrote articles, often on moral issues, for provincial papers.
Anna Leonowens, 1831-1915
One does not have to be born in Nova Scotia to make a difference here. Anna Leonowens is one of many to demonstrate that.
She was born Anna Edwards in India to British colonist parents of modest means. She came up with the last name Leonowens — and an embellished story about her background — after her husband (Thomas Leon Owens) died in 1858. Time and again as the years advanced, to make ends meet, Anna would re-invent herself in the Orient and Australia as an educator and travel writer.
She was already a celebrity when she moved to Halifax in 1878, thanks to her writing and lecturing about her adventures as a governess in the court of Siam (today's Thailand). Her telling of that exotic story captivated people's interests, as it has done many times since in books, musicals and films like Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I.
Anna moved to Nova Scotia when the husband (Thomas Fyshe) of her daughter Avis became the general manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia. For the next nineteen years, though Anna continued to travel and write, Halifax was her base. She certainly left her mark, speaking and writing for improvements in women's education and for women's suffrage. To those ends, she helped found the local Council of Women. Then in 1887, to mark Queen Victoria's fifty years on the throne, Anna Leonowens played the leading role in founding the Victoria School of Art and Design. In 1925, that school was renamed the Nova Scotia College of Art (today's NSCAD University).
After nearly two decades in Halifax, Anna Leonowens followed her daughter and her family to Montreal. Her departure from Nova Scotia was greatly lamented.
Eliza Ritchie, 1856-1935
Eliza Ritchie's cleverness was never in doubt. The question was: what could she do with it? There were few paths open to women born when she was.
Eliza grew up in a privileged family in Halifax, and was educated privately. She did not enter a wider world until she started at Dalhousie University in 1882. Women were first admitted only the year before. At Dalhousie, Eliza excelled in philosophy then moved on to Cornell University where in 1889 she completed a doctorate in German philosophy. She was, it is said, the first Canadian woman to earn a PhD. For the next decade, Eliza Ritchie taught at different women's colleges in the USA.
She returned to Halifax in 1899 and from then on led a life of "studious leisure", which she was able to do because of her family's wealth. Yet Eliza was anything but idle. In Nova Scotia, she became an influential intellectual and activist. She continued her philosophical research and writing and did public speaking. As a volunteer or a member of a board, Eliza Ritchie was an ardent promoter of education, art and literature. Her aim, she stated, was to make the Maritimes “a centre for high thinking and for the fostering of art.”
Central to her mission in life was to improve the status of women, all women regardless of social rank. Ritchie was a leader of the campaign to achieve women’s suffrage, which was finally achieved in Nova Scotia in 1918. In 1919, the scholar, author and feminist was appointed to Dalhousie University's Board of Governors, another first for Canadian women. Eight years later, she was the first woman to receive an honorary lld from Dalhousie.
With her brilliance and hard work, Eliza Ritchie had in countless ways made Nova Scotia much better than it was when she was born.
James Glode, 1831-1936
If you came to Nova Scotia in the 19th century to hunt or fish — and there were quite a few who did — you hired a guide. You wanted someone who knew the woodlands and wetlands like the back of their hands. Nine times out of ten that meant a Mi'kmaw guide, someone like Jim Glode.
James Glode was born at Lake Kejimkujik and ranged widely throughout the province over his very long life. He led many expeditions, including one with teen-aged Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria's third son. Arthur later became the Duke of Connaught and Canada's tenth Governor General. For thirty years, on hunts that sometimes lasted six months, Jim Glode guided various British aristocrats. Once he accompanied a group to the plains and mountains of Montana, Oregon and British Columbia. On that trip, Jim Glode met Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Like many Mi'kmaq in the 19th century, Glode followed a variation on the ancient lifestyle. At one point, he was living in Shubenacadie; at another time at Bear River. Wherever he was, he told stories and passed on knowledge. By the early 20th century, Glode was said to be one of the few who was still able to build a traditional birch bark canoe. He married twice, women whose full names are not known. One gave birth to ten children; the other to sixteen.
James Glode stayed in good health his entire life, but he did go blind and sometimes lived in an imagined, recalled world of lakes and rivers he'd known. Max Basque recalled that when Jim passed a hundred he would sometimes “kneel on his cot, kneel on it for hours, paddling and paddling – in his mind he was somewhere in his canoe. And then he’d get up and drag his cot across the room, get on again, and paddle, paddle. He thought he was portaging the canoe, see?”
George Dixon, 1870-1908
Born in Africville, George Dixon accomplished something no person of African descent — anywhere in North America — had ever done. Dixon became a world champion in boxing, not once but twice.
George turned to boxing when he was young, weighing a mere 39 kg (87 lbs) and standing only 1.6 m (5 ft 3 1/2 in). In the ring, however, he was a force. Wanting to use his talent at the highest level, George moved to Boston where boxing promoters called him "Little Chocolate."
From the 1880s to the early 1900s, George Dixon fought over 163 fights in three weight classes. In 1888, he did what no Black person had to that point accomplished: he won a boxing world championship, as a bantamweight. In 1891, a little heavier, he became the world featherweight champion. He reigned for over four years, successfully defending the title three times.
Time, of course, marches on. When George Dixon had to stop boxing he and his wife and family fell on hard times. The boxing community in New York City held a charity event to pay his hospital bills and to bury the former world champion in Boston.
Today, in his home province there is a recreation centre named after the man who was both the first Black and the first Canadian-born world boxing champion. Along the way, he is said to have invented shadowboxing as a training technique. One American authority calls George Dixon the greatest featherweight boxer of all-time.
Margaret Marshall Saunders, 1861-1947
Not many writers sell millions of books, but this Nova Scotia writer did — nearly 125 years ago.
Margaret was born in Milton and grew up in Berwick and Halifax. Her animal-loving family recognized she was precocious and furthered her education by sending her as an adolescent to school in Edinburgh and France. Her inclination to write was strong, especially of stories with a moral purpose for children, often including animals. Margaret wrote as Marshall Saunders, to make readers think she was a man.
With what would be her second novel — written from the perspective of a mistreated but beloved, heroic dog — Saunders won an American publishing contest. The book, Beautiful Joe, came out in 1894. It was a story filled with animal rights and humanitarian messages that charmed readers everywhere. Beautiful Joe is said to be the first book written by a Canadian to sell over a million copies. By the late 1930s it was in fifteen languages and had sold over seven million copies worldwide.
The story Saunders told in her best-seller was true. It was about a mongrel dog she had come to know in Ontario. The loving family she wrote about was based on her own and the locations where the action unfolds were inspired by Halifax and the Annapolis Valley. However, the contest she had won — and the publishing reality — insisted that fictitious American place names be used instead of the Nova Scotia ones.
Beautiful Joe and later books made Margaret Marshall Saunders a well-known author and public speaker, honoured by both Great Britain and France. She was a champion of children's and animal rights, but ended her days needing charity to help her get by.
Maria Lousia Angwin, 1849-1898
Nineteenth-century Nova Scotia differed from today’s province in countless ways. One was in the field of medicine. Until Maria Louisa Angwin came along to break a barrier, all doctors in the province were — and had always been — exclusively men.
Maria was born in Newfoundland and was still a child when her family moved to Nova Scotia in 1865. As a young adult, she attended the Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy then went on to the provincial Normal College in Truro, graduating as a teacher. For five years, she taught school in Dartmouth, saving as much money as she could for further studies. What Maria had in mind — a bold and remarkable ambition at the time, considering she would be the first — was to become a doctor. And sure enough, that is exactly what Maria Louisa Angwin achieved. She went to the USA and graduated in 1882 with an MD from the Women’s Medical College. From there she interned at a Boston hospital for women and children and went on for further medical studies in London, England. In 1884, she came back to Nova Scotia, making history when she was licensed as a doctor. She opened her practice in Halifax.
For more than a decade Dr. Angwin worked as a doctor in the provincial capital, serving as an inspiring example to an unknown number of girls and young women. Living in Halifax, medicine was not her only interest. She spoke in favour of women receiving the right to vote and was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
In 1897, Maria Louisa Angwin took a break from her medical practice to undertake post-graduate studies in New York State. The following spring, while still in the USA, Maria underwent minor surgery. During recovery, complications set in, taking the life of this barrier-breaker, Nova Scotia’s first woman doctor.
Jonathan G. MacKinnon, 1869-1944
Nova Scotia has long been home to many languages: Mi'kmaq, English and French leap to mind. In the eastern portion of the mainland and on Cape Breton Island, well into the 20th century, it was often Gaelic that was spoken more than anything else. That reflected the large Scottish immigration in the 1800s. Yet it also required local people who encouraged and promoted the use of Gaelic in all areas of life.
The greatest champion of Gaelic language and culture was Jonathan MacKinnon. He was born at Dunakin, near Whycocomagh. As a young man, he recognized the need to have certain literary classics for young readers available in Gaelic. He set out to translate Treasure Island and other stories into his native tongue. At the age of 23, MacKinnon began a Gaelic newspaper that would bring news and other information to adults. The paper was MacTalla (in English, "The Echo"), which he started to publish in Sydney in 1892. He kept the bi-weekly paper going until 1904, bringing its many readers local and world news in Gaelic, as well as history, proverbs, Greek mythology and correspondence. The paper was a major influence in keeping Gaelic a commonly spoken language across Cape Breton. The Scotsman, a major newspaper in Scotland, describes MacTalla as "the most successful Gaelic newspaper ever." The paper also has an ongoing legacy as a cornerstone resource for Gaelic scholarship.
After MacTalla came to an end, Jonathan MacKinnon turned to studying history. In 1918, he published Old Sydney, a book that is still in print. Then, in 1928, MacKinnon launched a monthly magazine in Gaelic, Fear Na Ceilidh, which he continued for two years.
Mabel Hubbard Bell, 1857-1923
Mabel Hubbard Bell, along with her husband, the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, are further proof that one does not have to be born in Nova Scotia to love the place — or to make a lasting mark.
Mabel's extraordinary efforts were often overshadowed by the fame of her husband, although her wisdom and companionship played a significant role in Alexander's successes. Mabel was from a prominent Boston family and had gone deaf at age five. She initially met Alexander while working with him to improve her speech, then married in 1877.
In 1885, the couple visited Cape Breton for the first time and fell in love with the island. They purchased land to build a summer home at the point of the Red Head Peninsula in Baddeck. With sweeping views of the Bras d'Or Lake, Beinn Bhreagh Hall was built as a summer home where the family would spend most of their years between 1893 and 1923.
Mabel Bell was not one to sit idly by while Alexander busied himself with experiments. She became keenly involved in the local community at Baddeck as an inspiring and tireless advocate for women's and children's education and rights. Mabel encouraged home industries and founded the first Canadian women's club, first chapter of the Canadian Home and School Parent-Teacher Federation and first Montessori school in Canada. She established the public library in Baddeck; and in 1907 she was the first woman in the world to form and manage an aviation company. That venture was the Aerial Experiment Association, which Mabel Bell headed and financed. The AEA was responsible for the flight of the Silver Dart, the first manned aircraft in Canada. In addition to all the above accomplishments, Mabel Hubbard Bell was a beloved wife, mother and grandmother.
Prat Sisters: Annie, Minnie and May
It was not unusual for young Nova Scotians in the late 19th century to head off to find work in the United States. It happened in many sectors, though not often in the arts. So how does one explain the Prat family in Wolfville, who produced not one but three daughters who in the 1890s sought careers working in the arts in the USA?
Part of the answer is that across the western world there were opportunities emerging for women to work outside the home. The Arts and Crafts movement, in particular, attracted many women. The Prat sisters were part of that larger phenomenon, yet their family must also have been one that encouraged adventure and ambition.
The eldest, Annie Prat, set the first example. In 1896, aged 35, she set off for the Art Institute of Chicago where she trained as a painter. The next year, 29-year old Minnie moved to New York to study artistic bookbinding at a renowned Arts and Crafts bindery headed up by the celebrated Evelyn Nordhoff. Soon after, 25-year old May Rosina Prat came to the same bindery, concentrating on decorative leather working. By 1900, Minnie and May had opened their own successful bookbinding and leather-working studio in New York.
All three sisters won honours or acclaim for their work, and came back to Nova Scotia as often as they could. On one visit home, in 1901, Minnie fell ill with typhoid and died. In 1904, May Rosina closed the bindery in New York and returned to Nova Scotia, where she married and did artistic bookbinding from her new home. As for Annie, she too came back to the province and painted miniatures and wildflowers. Before she died in 1960, aged 99, Annie Prat donated over 200 of her watercolours to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
- B. McLachlan, 1869-1937
Though born and raised overseas, James Bryson McLachlan became a dynamic Cape Bretoner and a legend in the Canadian labour movement. He grew up in a family of cotton weavers and farm labourers in Scotland and as a lad had to go to work underground. Later in life, McLachlan recalled: “I went to school until I was ten, then I went to work in the mine.” Though he never received much formal education, J. B. McLachlan read widely and was a student of the world.
His mother gave him a background in evangelical religion that strongly influenced his outlook and values. Upon his tombstone in Glace Bay would be engraved words from the Old Testament: "Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy." The chosen proverb succinctly summed up McLachlan's life.
On Cape Breton Island, McLachlan saw the need for collectivist action to tackle the dire conditions in which he and other miners worked. Not long after he migrated to Nova Scotia in 1902, he emerged as a labour leader, most notably with District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America. McLachlan's ardent activism led to him being barred from the mines, but that didn't stop him from toiling on behalf of miners. He was instrumental in bringing collective bargaining to the Nova Scotia coal industry during the First World War.
The 1920s saw many bitter strikes in the Cape Breton coal industry. In each one, McLachlan led the miners with strong organizational skills and imaginative tactics. He spent six months in prison for his activity, but after he was released, he was back working for the cause. McLachlan was the editor of the Maritime Labor Herald and then the Nova Scotia Miner. He also got involved in politics — with the Socialist Party, Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party — running six times in provincial and federal elections. Though never elected, J. B. McLachlan garnered lots of votes. More than that, no matter where or when, McLachlan always articulated the perspective of the working poor during what was a difficult era.
Edith Jessie Archibald, 1854-1936
It is almost tiring to read about all the involvements and accomplishments of this woman. Imagine how she felt! More seriously, a point to emphasize with Edith Jessie Archibald is that she came from a privileged background by both birth and marriage. The fully engaged life she led in pursuit of better health care, education and social justice for women and families was one she embraced by choice. Like several other socially prominent women of her era, Edith Jessie Archibald felt responsible for leading and assisting those less fortunate.
Born in Newfoundland, Edith Jessie moved as an adult to Cape Breton and then to Halifax. Wherever she lived, she was an ardent feminist. That meant she devoted enormous energy to improving the lot of women and, more generally, the conditions of life in Nova Scotia. One involvement was as a prominent leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in their fight to reduce the abusive effects of excessive alcohol consumption. She also led Halifax’s Local Council of Women and served on its national executive. She worked tirelessly to establish the Victorian Order of Nurses, Ladies’ Musical Club, Children’s Hospital, children’s camps, and political auxiliaries.
Not surprisingly, Edith Jessie Archibald was one of Nova Scotia's leading suffragettes. That followed from the realization that the exclusive male realm of politics did not always see issues the same way women did. Under Edith Jessie's leadership, Nova Scotian women came within one vote of acquiring the right to vote in 1893. A bill to enfranchise women voters failed in the Nova Scotia Legislature by only one vote on second reading. The right was finally won in 1918, near the end of the war. At the time, tireless Edith Jessie Archibald was managing Nova Scotia’s Red Cross relief for prisoners of war.
Edna May Best Sexton, 1880-1923
As Nova Scotia entered the 20th century, a growing number of remarkable women — like Edna May Best Sexton — were demonstrating how much they had to offer, and how foolish it was to limit the ways in which women could contribute to society.
When May Best's parents died young in New Brunswick, she ended up in Boston with an adoptive family. Showing “striking intellectual ability,” May attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1902 with high honours in chemistry. Working in the General Electric research laboratory she met and married Frederic Sexton, who had been appointed to Dalhousie University.
As a faculty wife and young mother in Halifax, May found she wanted to participate more fully in Nova Scotia society — and to open the door for other women to do the same. One means to that end was the Local Council of Women (LCW). Through speeches and writings, May Sexton became involved in the many issues the LCW championed. The hottest issue of the day was whether or not to grant women the vote. May became one of the strongest champions of that change.
When the First World War began in 1914, the LCW played a leading role in coordinating the civilian war effort. Edna May Sexton was prominent as an organizer, speaker and fund raiser. The Red Cross committee, of which she was co-chair, had the responsibility of providing hospital supplies, for both overseas and home-defence needs. Then in December 1917, Halifax was devastated by a deadly explosion that killed 2000, injured 9000, and left a swath of the city in ruins. Again, Edna May Best Sexton stepped up. Her Red Cross committee looked after the purchase and delivery of supplies for each of the 57 temporary hospitals and dressing stations. The many demands on her during and after the war took its toll. May's health broke down and she died far too young, aged only 43.
Andrew Randall Cobb, 1876-1943
Beautiful buildings can be taken for granted, especially if they have been around for years. They become touchstones for our communities and culture yet all those buildings begin as a concept in someone’s head before they are designed and built. Nova Scotia has known many fine architects, with Andrew Cobb being one of the most renowned.
Andrew Cobb was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father died when Andrew was 14, then he and his mother (Mary Randall) moved to Nova Scotia where she had family roots. Andrew continued his education at Acadia University before studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Those studies and his travels in Europe planted ideas in him that would translate to a lifetime of beautiful and iconic buildings he imagined, mostly in Nova Scotia.
Andrew designed both private homes and institutional buildings that were known for. All are acclaimed for their exterior aesthetics, craftsmanship and interior appeal. Some show influences associated with the Beaux-Arts or Tudor Revival schools, others reflect Craftsman or Georgian elements.
There is not space enough to list every building Andrew designed. His first was the Dingle Memorial Tower (1909), in collaboration with S.P. Dumaresq. Other buildings included the former Casino Theatre in Halifax, a Presbyterian church in Wolfville, and the Greenvale School in Dartmouth. He designed elegant residences for the wealthy as well as more modest homes for the less affluent. His most ambitious single design project was for an entire mill town in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. University campuses were another specialty. Cobb designed virtually every building on the Studley Campus of Dalhousie University and various notable structures for the University of King’s College, Acadia University and Mount Allison University.
In addition to his architectural practice, Andrew Cobb taught at the Technical College of Nova Scotia from 1912. At the age of 67, Andrew’s life — and career — were cut short when he died tragically while riding on a Halifax city bus that was struck by a dockyard truck.
Father Jimmy Tompkins, 1870-1952 & Father Moses Coady, 1882-1959
The 1920s and 1930s were a time of harsh economic conditions in parts of Nova Scotia. Fishers, farmers and miners were especially hard hit. Many worked for next to nothing, while those controlling their industries grew rich. It seemed to most that was simply how the world was and had to be — until new ideas and a fresh spirit arose in eastern Nova Scotia. The different approach came to be called the Antigonish Movement. That was because it was sparked by two charismatic Roman Catholic priests, Fathers Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. They were both from the Margaree Valley of Cape Breton, double cousins in fact, and each had ties with St. Francis Xavier University.
Tompkins was the first to urge ordinary people to take greater control over their lives. His activist ideas led to him being sent to what was then the remote Canso area. There, Tompkins practiced what he preached. He urged the local people to educate themselves on economic, social and political issues and to work together with others in their community for common ends. Coady shared the same vision and like Tompkins toiled tirelessly to spread the word. The two men met with people where they were most comfortable, often in their kitchens.
Together, Tompkins and Coady gradually started to change the world, one kitchen and one community at a time. Moreover, their examples, solutions and spirit spread. Starting in the late 1920s and continuing in the 1930s, co-operatives and credit unions, which the two priests championed, spread across the Maritimes and all English Canada. Not long after, in the 1940s and 1950s, the teachings and approaches of the Antigonish Movement found receptive ears in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
The work begun by Tompkins and Coady continues today, by the Extension Department and Coady Institute of St. Francis Xavier University, which works primarily with international students.
Katharine McLennan, 1892-1974
We do not all grow up with self-confidence or a clear idea of what we can be. It takes time — and experience — to figure it out. That, in a nutshell, is Katharine McLennan's story.
Katharine grew up on Cape Breton Island, the youngest child in a prominent, wealthy family. Her mother, Louise Bradley, was a beautiful, talented artist. Her father, Senator J.S. McLennan, was an industrialist turned newspaper publisher and historian. Her older siblings moved easily into adult roles, yet Katharine did not. She was shy and artistic, and without a plan for her life. Becoming someone's wife — the most obvious choice for a woman in her society — held no appeal. Then, in her early twenties, came two great losses. Katharine was stunned by the sudden death in 1912 of her mother from a ruptured appendix, and in 1914 when her brother Hugh was one of the first Cape Bretoners to die in the First World War.
Katharine wanted to find something meaningful to do with her life. She asked her father if she could go overseas to help the Allied troops. Her father said no, fearing she might be harmed. Privately, Katharine complained about "Dad tying me down in this way ... I should be allowed to make my own mistakes, then I would have no one to reproach but myself."
At last, Katharine found the inner strength. She insisted and her father gave way. Katharine went overseas and worked as a nursing assistant in four different French hospitals. When she came back to Cape Breton in 1919 she was a different person. From then on, Katharine was active serving the community where she lived. Sometimes she was an anonymous benefactor to people in need. More publicly, she became renowned as the champion and curator of the Fortress of Louisbourg. That role lasted about four decades, until the Parks Canada reconstruction came along in the 1960s. In finding roles where she could help, Katharine McLennan had found herself.
Aileen Meagher, 1910-1987
Aileen Aletha Meagher exemplifies versatility. She ventured down various paths in her life and stood out in each one.
Aileen first came to prominence at track and field. At the time, especially at the Halifax convent school she attended, "ladies" were not supposed to run. In the wider world, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, had said it was "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect" for women to do men's sports. Well, Aileen begged to differ. She cut off a pair of her brother’s trousers to make pants she could run in. “I just went out and ran around the track as fast as I could go.” She was a true natural. “The nuns were ashamed of me and my parents not too sure,” Aileen later recalled.
In her first year at Dalhousie University, Aileen entered a track meet for new students and won every race. The track coach suggested she train seriously, which she did. Soon Aileen was one of the fastest runners in Canada. Because she was a school teacher, the local press dubbed her "Nova Scotia's Flying Schoolmarm." By 1930, Aileen held the Canadian record for the 100 and 220-yard events. In 1935, she was named the Most Outstanding Canadian Female Athlete. In 1936, she represented Canada at the Berlin Olympics, where she earned a bronze medal in the 400-yard relay. Two years later, at the British Empire Games, Aileen won a silver and a bronze.
When Aileen ended her running she became a much admired, fulltime school teacher. In 1949, approaching her 40th birthday, Aileen began to take classes at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It was not long before art became a vital part of her life; she would go on to win awards. She was also an intrepid traveller and a talented writer. Aileen Meagher is in both Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.
Désiré d'Eon, 1905 — 1996
Communities need voices, and ways to be able to speak to and among themselves. That is especially so for widely dispersed linguistic minority communities. In 19th- and early 20th-century Nova Scotia, the Acadian community found itself in that situation — until Désiré d'Eon came along in the 1930s to begin to fill its communication needs.
D’Eon grew up in West Pubnico. He attended the Collège Ste-Anne in Pointe-de-l’Église, then went for teacher training at the Normal College in Truro in 1929-30. While there, he oversaw publishing the college's directory. It was an experience he would draw on a few years later to help his home community.
After a few years of teaching at the Collège Ste-Anne, he went to Washington, D.C. to obtain his master's degree. When he came back to Nova Scotia, he had the idea — as well as the necessary courage and tenacity — to launch a weekly newspaper in French. Its purpose? To enable his fellow Acadians to have news and information in their own language and on stories the English-language media were not covering. The paper was Le Petit Courrier and it was first published in 1937. Its impact was immediate and immense. D'Eon and other writers presented stories in an easily understood style. Moreover, they communicated news of interest to Acadians. At the time, there were no local French-language media around. The closest was L’Évangeline (1887-1982), published in Moncton. While Le Petit Courrier originated in South-West Nova Scotia, it eventually developed a readership in Acadian communities in all corners of the province.
D'Eon ran the paper for decades, though there were times when he had to suspend publication as he battled tuberculosis. The newspaper still exists, undergoing name changes along the way. Today, it is known as Le Courier de la Nouvelle-Écosse.
Désiré D'Eon retired from the paper in 1977 and, at age 71, married Jane-Rose Twomey. The pioneering Acadian newspaperman died in 1996.
Portia White, 1911-1968
In her later years, Portia May White offered this explanation for her life: "First you dream, then you put on your walking shoes."
In the era in which Portia grew up, few would have imagined that the sixth child of Izie and Rev. William White would end up as a classically trained contralto on concert stages — before adoring audiences, including one with a head of state. Portia sang around the house as a child in Truro and later in the choir of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax when her father became its minister. There was never any doubt about her talent. The question was, how could she with her family's modest means obtain the training she would need to sing the classical repertoire? Portia dreamed there might be a way, yet her teaching job in Africville did not pay enough for the lessons she would need.
In the 1930s, others stepped in to make her dream a reality. The Halifax Ladies Musical Club paid for Portia's classes at the Conservatory of Music, where renowned Italian baritone Ernesto Vinci mentored her. Vinci later said she was the most talented pupil he worked with in North America. Next, the provincial government created a Nova Scotia Talent Trust — which still exists — specifically to assist Portia with her touring costs. By the 1940s, Portia was touring and singing across Canada and internationally. One Toronto critic wrote that hers was "a natural voice, a gift from heaven." In the 1950s she settled in Toronto and took on students, including Maureen Forrester and Robert Goulet. In 1964, Portia came out of retirement to sing for Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of Charlottetown's Confederation Centre for the Arts. The Portia White Prize, established in 1998, recognizes cultural and artistic excellence in Nova Scotia.
Thomas H. Raddall, 1903-1994
The man who would become one of Nova Scotia’s most celebrated novelists and historians moved to the province from England with his family when he was ten. Four years later, living in Halifax, young Tom’s life turned upside down.
In 1917, Tom and his family felt the full force of the Halifax Explosion, but escaped with minor injuries. A few months later, they learned their absent military officer father and husband had died overseas in France at the Battle of Amiens. Faced with a dire economic situation, Tom left school; he was in Grade 10, aged fourteen. He would never go to school again, but he would later win multiple literary awards and receive honorary degrees.
The work young Tom found, lying about his age, was as a telegrapher —tapping messages as “a brasspounder” on ships at sea. He toughed it out for several years, and sailed an estimated “thirty-five thousand miles on the cold and stormy North Atlantic.” Next came a year on lonely Sable Island, where in his spare time Tom finally began to write. He had his first story published when he was eighteen.
Fed up with being a telegrapher, Tom found work as a bookkeeper at a paper mill near Liverpool. He would stay in that area, near his beloved Mersey River, the rest of his life. There, he met and married Edith Freeman and raised a family.
After a few years of office work, writing pieces for national and international magazines in his spare time, Tom took a chance and quit. Nova Scotia and Canada would be glad he did. He would hit his full stride as a writer in the 1940s. From then on, Thomas H. Raddall devoted all his energy to writing stories and books. Eleven novels, seven histories, six short story collections and a memoir were the result.
Viola Desmond, 1914-1965 & Carrie Best, 1903-2001
The Nova Scotia into which Carrie Best (née Prevoe) and Viola Desmond (née Davis) were born was a society with ingrained prejudices about people of colour. There were restrictions on where Blacks could live or work and where they could get their hair cut or sit in movie theatres. Carrie and Viola set out to bring down such racist walls.
Their most famous challenge involved the colour bar at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. In 1941, Carrie Best chose to sit with her son in the lower section rather than in the balcony reserved for Blacks. The manager told her to leave for "disturbing the peace." Carrie stood her ground. "I can't see how we are disturbing anybody's peace. We are waiting for the movie to start." The manager called the police and Carrie was arrested and fined.
Five years later, Viola Desmond experienced the same prejudice in the same theatre. She was a business woman who operated the Desmond School of Beauty Culture in Halifax and who had a line of products she sold across the province. In 1946, on a business trip to Sydney, Viola's car broke down in New Glasgow. While waiting for it to be fixed, she decided to go to the Roseland Theatre. She didn't notice the ticket specified that it was for the balcony. Instead, she took a seat downstairs. "You can't sit here," an usher said, "you people are to sit in the balcony."
"I'll sit here," Viola replied.
The manager arrived. He explained ground floor seats cost more than the balcony. "How much is it?" Viola asked.
"You can't buy a main-floor ticket." The manager had Viola taken to the police station where she was locked up overnight.
The incident would end up in court, and Carrie Best did everything she could to publicize Viola Desmond's case. Carrie began The Clarion, one of the first Black-owned and published newspapers in Nova Scotia. In that and other newspapers, and on a regular radio show, Carrie Best was tireless in pointing out racial prejudices and injustices of all kinds. The Nova Scotia government repealed its segregation laws in 1954. In 2010, Viola Desmond received an official pardon.
Viola Desmond and Carrie Best are two of many heroes in the African Nova Scotia community.
Walter Harris Callow, 1896-1958
It is difficult to imagine a better example of determination and selfless dedication than what we see in the life of Walter Callow.
When the First World War came along, the Parrsboro-born young man enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps' Canadian (RFC) training program. The RFC was a British unit formed to give its side a military presence in the air. While training in Ontario, Walter crashed in a test flight in 1918. He survived, but ended up with a serious back injury and a heart condition.
Walter returned to Nova Scotia, where he operated a lumber business in Advocate. In 1931, however, his earlier injuries made him bed-ridden. That same year, his wife and mother both died, leaving him alone to look after his young child. Walter turned to selling real-estate to make a living. His health, however, deteriorated. By 1937 he became (for the rest of his life) a full-time resident of the Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax. Two years later he was blind and quadriplegic.
Hard to believe, yet that is not the end of Walter's story. After the Second World War began in 1939 Walter decided to establish a service for soldiers who were overseas. He established the Callow Cigarette Fund, with staff he supervised, sending cigarettes to soldiers over-seas. After the war, with revenue from the cigarette fund, Walter came up with a fresh idea. He wanted to develop a specially-designed accessibility bus for disabled veterans and anyone else who used a wheelchair. As he envisioned it, the vehicle would take those in need out to the countryside, to sporting events or other activities. Callow had two custom-made buses built in Pubnico, then turned to major automobile manufacturers to build his wheelchair coaches.
Walter Callow Wheelchair Buses still exist today, and still do exactly what their creator wanted. The only time that Walter rode on the bus was when his body was returned to Advocate for burial, after a funeral in Halifax that featured full military honours.
Chief Stephen J. Knockwood 1902-1986
The first half of the 20th century was a challenging time for indigenous peoples across Canada, including for the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia. The federal governments of the era were generally disregarding the treaties of the 18th century and supported programs such as residential schools and "centralization." The latter was designed to take Mi'kmaq living in different places around the province and to concentrate them on two major reserves. The relocations were sought regardless of whether people wanted to be moved or not. It was an era that called for resolute leadership among the Mi'kmaq, leaders such as Chief Stephen J. Knockwood.
Stephen Knockwood was born in King’s County. He was one of many Mi’kmaq who went to war to fight in defence of Canada. In fact, Stephen served in both the First and Second World Wars. Coming home from the second conflict he became the Chief of Indian Brook in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In addition to becoming a leader on the political front, Stephen Knockwood was a canoe builder, artisan, writer and oral traditionalist. It was in the mid-1950s that he became as the overall Chief for the Atlantic Region. This was a period before the existence of organizations like the National Indian Brotherhood, Union of Nova Scotia Indians and Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq. As a leader, Chief Stephen J. Knockwood stood tall, upholding the rights of the Mi'kmaq. In so doing, he helped lay the groundwork for gains that later generations of Mi'kmaq would make.
Maud Lewis, 1903-1970
It is impossible not to marvel at Maud Lewis. The tiny woman with a bent frame and crippled fingers only once travelled more than an hour's drive from the place of her birth in South Ohio (Yarmouth County). Her family — the Dowleys — was poor but loving. Yet as a child, Maud endured cruel teasing at school for her small size and disfigurement. She stopped going at fourteen.
After her parents died in the mid-1930s, Maud made her own way in the world. One day she walked six miles to answer an advertisement for a housekeeper in Marshalltown (near Digby), an ad posted by fish peddler Everett Lewis. The two married a few weeks later.
From then on Maud and Everett Lewis lived with little income in the tiniest of houses with no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Each did what she or he could to bring in money. In Maud’s case, that was art. Initially, it was Christmas cards, sold for a nickel. Then she moved on to painting on cardboard and reclaimed strips of wood. The prices were never high.
Maud had no formal training, but that hardly mattered. She had a natural talent and a distinctive perspective on life and the world around her. "As long as I've got a brush in front of me," Maud once said, "I'm all right." Despite the hardships of her life, she depicted scenes of a re-imagined childhood or her current situation. With their bright colours, the paintings radiate joy.
Maud Lewis died in 1970, but her art lives on. Many of her paintings, and even her entire painted house — with bright colours and scenes on the door, stairs, bread boxes, walls, stove and window glass — are on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Sister Margaret Beaton, 1839-1975
Archivists and librarians are unsung heroes in our civilization. Without institutions to keep the records, images and sounds of the past, where would we be? Perpetually starting over, instead of building on the foundations our predecessors laid down. One Nova Scotian who stood out in the archival field was Sister Margaret Beaton.
Margaret Isabella Beaton grew up in Inverness County. All lifelong she placed a high value on education. At 19, she entered the religious community of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. In her forties, she obtained a Bachelor's and then a Master's degree. Soon after, Sister Margaret returned to Cape Breton to take charge of Holy Angels High School in Sydney. She built up its library collection and the experience spurred her on to attain a Master's in Library Science when she was in her mid-fifties. When Sister Margaret came back to Cape Breton in 1955, it was to become the first full-time librarian at the Xavier Junior College in Sydney. (Xavier was part of St. Francis Xavier University; it later became the Cape Breton University.)
Sister Margaret turned the Xavier College library into something special. In addition to books, she began to acquire archival material pertaining to the history of Cape Breton Island. She could see that much was being lost for lack of a place to house such materials. The collection grew steadily throughout the 1960s, once Islanders realized there finally was a place to donate valuable documents. Sister Margaret dubbed the collection Cape Bretoniana. It became her fulltime profession to safeguard it and make it grow.
Having grown up in Inverness County, Sister Beaton was steeped in Gaelic culture and was a fluent speaker of the language. She collected a wealth of Gaelic materials that would otherwise have been lost. She also made sure that the archives covered all other cultural groups on the Island, such as the Italians, Lebanese, Mi'kmaq and Polish.
Sister Margaret Beaton's life and work were cut short by a car accident. Not long after, to honour all she had accomplished to preserve culture and history, the collection she called Cape Bretoniana was re-named in her honour the Beaton Institute of Cape Breton Studies.
Burnley "Rocky" Jones, 1941-2013
The 1960s were a turbulent time, when activists challenged old ways of seeing and doing things. Burnley Allan Jones — "Rocky" as he came to be known — was a true original in this regard. For his entire adult life, this determined and charismatic champion of racial equality and social justice made Nova Scotia and Canada better places to live.
Rocky always acknowledged that the values he lived by were those he had learned growing up in the tight-knit community known as the Marsh, one of three areas in Truro where at the time African Nova Scotians lived. As he came of age, Rocky started noticing the systemic racism he encountered in his home town, his province and his country. He made it his primary goal in life to expose and eliminate any injustices he found. Over his span of years, he sought reforms in many areas including justice, employment, housing, education and environmental racism. Rocky stood up for any individual or group whose options were being limited by racism, with a special interest in the challenges face by Nova Scotians of African descent and the Mi'kmaq.
Rocky was an inspirational speaker, but his community leadership was more than talk. He got involved at the grassroots and worked hard to bring changes. He helped establish the Black United Front of Nova Scotia and the National Black Coalition of Canada. Then he helped create the Transition Year Program and the Indigenous Blacks and Mi'kmaq Initiative, both at Dalhousie University. Then Rocky became a lawyer. He handled cases to help people at the local level and successfully argued a ground-breaking case (R. vs R.D.S.) before the Supreme Court of Canada that set a precedent for race-related litigation and contextualized judging. Ever the courageous crusader, Burnley "Rocky" Jones devoted his life to building a more just society.
Nina Cohen, 1907-1991
Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is a gift, and not one felt by everyone to the same degree. Glace Bay's Nina Cohen must have been empathetic to a great degree. She never worked in a coal mine, nor did anyone in her family, yet Nina devoted enormous energy to seeing that the hard lives miners led underground, and their contributions to life on Cape Breton Island, were duly acknowledged by the society around them. She played a leading role in the creation of two major cultural institutions: The Cape Breton Miners' Museum and the choir known as the Men of the Deeps.
Nina was born and raised in Glace Bay, one of four children of Rose and Max Fried. She graduated from Glace Bay High, attended Mount Allison Ladies College and married Harry Cohen. Together they had one child and adopted two orphans who had survived the Holocaust. Beyond the life of her family in Sydney, Nina was always busy in the wider world. The Cape Breton's Red Cross Society was a major involvement; so too was her chairing of the island's tourist board and when she served as president of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO. Nina Cohen was a woman who knew how to get things done. Nina's approach to life, as recalled by her niece, was simple: “If you want to do something, then do it."
In the early 1960s, with Canada's Centenary looming, it came to Nina and others on Cape Breton that the importance of the coal miners to the Island and to Canada was insufficiently recognized. She headed up a determined campaign to create a miners' museum, with the goal being to have it open for Centennial celebrations in 1967. It may have been a long shot, but that only made her work harder. Years of speeches, lobbying and fund-raising paid off. The museum opened, and a choir of miners, the Men of the Deeps, came into existence. Nina Cohen's work on behalf of Glace Bay and its miners had made a tremendous difference.
Père Anselme Chiasson, 1911-2004
Until well into the 20th century, the leading figures in Acadian communities were often priests. As in all professions, some stood out more than others. One of the great champions of Acadian history across the Maritimes — and the nourishing role that history, folklore and traditions play in shaping a people and their culture — was Père Anselme Chiasson.
Père Chiasson grew up in Chéticamp and went on to study classics and theology in Ottawa and Montreal. In 1938, he was ordained as a Capuchin priest at Chéticamp. The rest of his life, much of which was spent in Moncton, he devoted to living his faith, carrying out research on the Acadian experience and serving the different communities where he lived and worked. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing for the rest of his life, he made countless contributions to strengthen the Acadian identity. In 1960, he co-founded the Société historique acadienne, which still exists today. In 1961, he founded the first Acadian publishing house, Les Éditions des Aboiteaux.
Père Chiasson loved to visit Acadian villages around the Maritimes. In each one he would collect, document and eventually communicate to a wider public stories, legends, and customs. Based on his research, Chiasson published five editions of Acadian songs, as well as four traditional history books, one of which was a much-admired history of his place of birth, Chéticamp, histoire et traditions acadiennes (1961).
For the profound influence he had on Acadian history, culture, and genealogy, Père Chiasson received many awards and honours, including the status of Chevalier with the French National Order of Merit (1999), Chevalier of the Order of La Pléiade (2002), and Officer with the Order of Canada (2003).
Lèger Comeau, 1920-1996
The term "multi-tasking" is recent, yet the reality goes back a long way. One example from Nova Scotia's Acadian community is Léger Comeau. Here was a man who was a priest as well as a university professor, administrator, cultural dynamo and fervent Acadian nationalist.
Comeau was born in Saulnierville, and went on to attend university and an Eudist seminary to become a priest. The years that followed saw him advance his studies and teach, at first in Quebec and later in Nova Scotia. Yet academic life and religious obligations were never his only focus. Comeau always thought about how he could serve the broad Acadian community. In 1957, for instance, he founded the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse (FANE). In the 1960s, moving to Halifax, he became the director of the Atlantic Provinces Inter-Diocesan Seminary, as well as the regional representative of the National Film Board. There is not space enough to list all his involvements and accomplishments from then on. In addition to his spiritual and pastoral duties, he devoted himself the development and recognition of Acadian culture by creating or working for the widest possible range of cultural organizations.
For all his many labours, Comeau received more than fifty national and international honours, including Knight of the Legion of Honour, France's highest civilian recognition. A commemorative medal was named in his honour (médaille Léger-Comeau), which, since 1988, is presented by the National Society of Acadians to individuals who do exceptional work to promote the Acadian people, their history and their culture.
When he died at age 76, all Acadians mourned. They had lost a man who had paved the way for their community to take its rightful place in the modern world.
Muriel Duckworth, 1908-2009
By the time Muriel Duckworth (née Ball) moved to Halifax with her husband Jack in 1947, she was already a fully formed feminist and peace activist. "Gentle yet fierce" is one description of her. Another admirer wrote that "peace, hope and love" were her watchwords. Any way you summarize it, Muriel's long life was dedicated to advancing world peace and social justice, twin causes she believed were deeply inter-connected.
Muriel always acknowledged that she first learned how to be strong, independent and community-minded from her mother's example, on the family farm where she grew up in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Arriving in Nova Scotia in 1947 — as previously when she and Jack had lived in Montreal and New York City — Muriel was an advocate not just for peace, but equally for the underlying elements that made peace possible: women's rights, social justice, education, mental health and a healthy environment. The list of organizations — city-based, provincial, national and international — to which she belonged (or helped create) is long. In Halifax, she was a strong voice combating racism and supporting community development. The group with which she was most closely associated in the public mind was the Voice of Women (VOW). Muriel served on its national board from 1960 to 1975, and as Canadian president from 1967 to 1971.
At times, advocating for peace was not comfortable or easy. During periods of wars, Muriel was sometimes criticized or mocked. Nonetheless, she did not waver from her beliefs. For a long life dedicated to peace and social justice, Muriel Duckworth received many awards and honours. They included honorary degrees from ten universities and being made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Just as her mother had been an example to her, Muriel was a role model for countless Nova Scotia women, including young Alexa McDonough and Elizabeth May.
Rita Joe, 1932-2007
Rita Joe's childhood was about as hard as it could be, and her life as an adult was rarely easy. Yet hardships and suffering never broke her spirit. Rita always sought to overcome what stood in her way by living with kindness, strength and dignity.
Rita was born at Whycocomagh, part of the Waycobah First Nation, as Rita Bernard. Her mother died when she was five and Rita was put in a succession of foster families. Her father passed away when she was ten. Two years later, like many other Aboriginal young people of that era, Rita went to an Indian Residential School. In her case, it was at Shubenacadie. Rita had asked to go there for the room and board. But during the four years she spent at the school, Rita recalled later in life, the basic message conveyed to her and other Mi'kmaq was: "You're no good."
When Rita was given an opportunity to leave the residential school at sixteen, after having finished Grade 8, she took it. She went to Halifax to take a job, then to Montreal and Boston, and had babies she could not keep.
It was in Boston that Rita met Frank Joe, whom she wed. They would eventually move to the Eskasoni First Nation. Their life together had its difficulties, but Rita never stopped loving Frank. Together they raised 10 children, including two adopted sons.
It was in Eskasoni that Rita began to write, especially poetry. She strove always to tell the truth, for writing helped her move on from painful memories. Her first collection of poetry came out in 1978. More books followed in later years. In the prologue to her memoir, Rita Joe wrote: "My greatest wish is that there will be more writing from my people, and that our children will read it. I have said again and again that our history would be different if it had been expressed by us."
Rita Joe earned many accolades and honours as a writer, from far and wide. Unofficially, she is often called the "poet laureate" of the Mi'kmaq people.
Alex Colville, 1920-2013
Nova Scotia has been home to almost as many artists as there are stars in the sky. In our earthly constellation, one painter and print-maker — Alex Colville — has so far achieved the greatest international recognition. Around the world, from the 1960s onward, Colville's distinctive art work became widely known and highly prized.
David Alexander Colville was born in Toronto, yet spent much of his childhood in Nova Scotia after his family moved to Amherst. When it came time to go to university, he selected nearby Mount Allison, from which he graduated with a fine arts degree. In 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, Alex married Rhoda Wright and enlisted in the Canadian army. Two years later, his artistic talent saw him appointed an official war artist. His experiences in that capacity, depicting battlefields and a concentration camp, would be major influences on him and his art throughout his life. His work would often be described as magic realism, with an emphasis on ambiguity and foreboding as viewers wrestle with what seems to lie beneath everyday appearances.
After the war, Colville taught in the Fine Arts Department at Mount Allison University from 1946 to 1963, at which point he devoted himself fulltime to painting and print-making. National and international acclaim followed as his oeuvre increased. In 1965, the Canadian government commissioned him to design the coins for Canada's Centennial. In 1966, Colville was one of three artists picked to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale. It was in 1973 that Alex and Rhoda moved to Nova Scotia fulltime, to her hometown of Wolfville. For the next four decades, Colville turned out art that provoked thoughtful discussion and delighted collectors worldwide.
At the same time as he was a major artist on the international stage, Alex Colville was rooted in Kings County, including serving as the chancellor of Acadia University from 1981 to 1991.
La Baie en Joie
Did you know that you can begin dancing in the community of Clare in southwest Nova Scotia and before you know it you might be dancing your way across Canada and around the world? Well, no, it's not possible for everyone, but if you're a member of the dance troupe La Baie en Joie, that kind of travel is a definite possibility. For nearly forty years, the engaging Acadian troupe has been delighting countless audiences with traditional folk dancing that celebrates their distinctive corner of Acadie.
The troupe began as a spur-of-the-moment thought in 1979, when Anne-Marie Comeau, Anne Bonin and others were asked to put together some young step dancers from the Acadian shore along La Baie Sainte-Marie (Saint Mary's Bay) to accompany the local band "Les Tymeux de la Baie" for a performance at a festival in Caraquet, New Brunswick. The dancers were a huge hit — and Anne-Marie, Anne and others realized right away that the young people of their community could be something special for longer than a one-time appearance. La Baie en Joie was born, with Anne-Marie Comeau staying on as the director of the troupe and a choreographer.
Dancers must be at least 11 years old, and they graduate from the troupe at the latest when they leave high school. Most are girls, but some boys join as well. Since the 1980s through to today, La Baie en Joie has performed for a president of France, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, several G7 summits, at the Vancouver Olympics and hundreds of other venues across Canada and internationally.
The name of the group really says it all — La Baie en Joie is a troupe that in each and every colourful performance its young dancers show their pride in being Acadian and their joy in being alive.
For the past half century, Walter Borden has been an acclaimed actor, playwright, poet and teacher. Along the way, he has performed on stages across Canada. Importantly, Walter says the foundation for his career was laid in his hometown of New Glasgow. That's because it was when he was growing up in Pictou County that he began to grasp the potential he possessed. “By the time that I left New Glasgow in 1960, everything that I had been taught combined to make me ready to go and do whatever I want to do. I’ve lived by the maxim be a sower of seeds, a witness and a messenger.”
Walter graduated from Acadia University and the Nova Scotia Teachers' College, then went to New York to study acting at the highest possible level. He came back to Nova Scotia, and the rest of Canada, as a fully developed performer and creator. In the late 1960s, he helped establish Kwaacha House – an interracial teen-oriented, drop-in and social education centre that inspired young Nova Scotians to seek full equality of citizenship and full equality of opportunity for African Nova Scotians. Walter was a mentor to many young Blacks at this time.
On the stage, Borden joined Halifax's Neptune Theatre Company in 1972, and performed with them and other theatrical troupes many times since. He has also had numerous roles in films and on television. In each role, Walter Borden captivates audiences. One particularly noteworthy work was the play he wrote and performed entitled Tightrope Time: Ain't Nuthin' More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Twilight And Dawn. It was an autobiographical examination of the complex world of a central character who is Black and gay, who is raised in small town Nova Scotia but is living in a city facing challenges like racism, impoverishment and homophobia.
For his long and distinguished career in the arts, Walter Borden has received many awards and honours — including the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, the African Nova Scotian Music Association’s Music Heritage Award and the Portia White Prize and been made a member of the Order of Canada.
Dr. Abdullah Kirumira
There are many reasons for Nova Scotia to welcome new Canadians. One, as exemplified by Dr. Abdullah Kirumira, is that they can be brilliant — and capable of improving life on earth using Nova Scotia as their base.
Dr. Kirumira was born in Uganda, and might have made important contributions there except that the period he was in university as a dental student was the time of Idi Amin’s dictatorship. Abdullah escaped to Iraq to study chemistry with the idea of becoming a doctor. Looking back, he says: “Getting into biotechnology was how I got back to [my] dream. I chose to apply the discipline to medicine.”
It was during the early 1990s that Dr. Kirumira moved with his family to Nova Scotia. He had obtained a position as a biochemistry professor at Acadia University. There, he carried out research with a few of his graduate students, especially Hermes Chan, and came up with an invention in 1993 that was to have worldwide impact. The team developed a three-minute HIV diagnostic test. With that success, Dr. Kirumira decided that his future should be in fulltime research in an independent company.
First came Octupus Diagnostics then MedMira and in 1999 Dr. Kirumira founded BioMedica Diagnostics in Windsor. It's a medical biotechnology company that focuses on the research, development, and marketing of affordable diagnostics solutions for resource-challenged clinics. Dr. Kirumira and his company work with governments and international aid agencies such as the World Health Organization. The goal is to develop diagnostic equipment for small clinical settings, such as battle zones, rural healthcare facilities and corporate and industrial clinics.
Dr. Kirumira explains his work this way: "My vision is to establish affordable laboratory medicine in Third World countries that do not have access to diagnostic equipment because it is too expensive, or they don’t have the appropriate technology at their disposal."
Mary Ellen Robinson, 1927-2012
There are more than a few Nova Scotians who do not make headlines, yet who still make important contributions. Ellen Robinson is a wonderful example. In countless, unpublicized ways, this Mi'kmaw Elder lived a life filled with kindness and thoughtfulness on behalf of her family, friends and community. Nothing filled her with more joy or pride than being a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, as well as the beloved godmother of several hundred children in other families. She loved helping others, especially young people.
Mary Ellen Lewis was born in Bear River. By marrying non-Native Peter Robinson, she lost her Indian status in the eyes of the federal government. At the time, Indigenous men could marry non-Native women and retain their status, but Indigenous women lost their status with such a marriage. Ellen Robinson fought that injustice for decades, and eventually in 1985 saw the federal government correct the double standard by returning Indian status to thousands of women like Ellen across the land. One of Ellen's accomplishments along her journey was to help found the Native Council of Nova Scotia. It was (and still is) a great help to Mi'kmaq living away from their home communities. And that's not all Ellen did. She also was a regular volunteer at the Shubenacadie Court House, helping youth stay out of trouble. Her favourite advice was for the young people to take better care of themselves. Besides raising her own family of five, Ellen worked at the Shubenacadie Residential School, where she comforted many a homesick and distraught child.
In 2009, Ellen Robinson received a medal for her years of community work from the Congress of Aboriginal People. In 2010, the Premier of Nova Scotia recognized her status as a respected Elder with an award.
Ruth Goldbloom, 1923-2012
When she was admitted to the Order of Nova Scotia in 2008, Ruth Goldbloom's citation began by saying that she had "dedicated her life to enriching the lives of Nova Scotians." How true that was. Expressed differently, Ruth Goldbloom stands in the front rank of Canadian volunteers for all that she accomplished for the good of her community.
She was born Ruth Miriam Schwartz in New Waterford, to parents who had come from the part of imperial Russia where at the time Jews were allowed to live. Though born and raised in Canada, Ruth always felt for what her parents — and millions of other families from all different ethnic and religious backgrounds — had gone through in becoming newcomers in their new land.
Ruth went to Mount Allison and McGill Universities, and it was at the latter that she met the man she would marry, Richard Goldbloom. The couple and their children moved to Halifax in 1967, with Richard becoming Physician-in-Chief at the Isaac Walton Killam Children's Hospital. From then on, Ruth was involved as a volunteer making Halifax and Nova Scotia better places to live. She chaired or played leading roles in fundraising campaigns for the Children's Hospital, Mount Saint Vincent University, the United Way, the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and Symphony Nova Scotia. Along the way, she was the first Jew to chair the Mount St. Vincent's Board of Governors.
In 1990, Ruth co-founded the Pier 21 Society, and spearheaded fundraising efforts that would eventually raise $16 million for a museum to tell the stories of the more than one million immigrants who had come to Canada through that ocean terminal between 1928 and 1971. Ruth was a driving force, always encouraging people to support the project. The Pier 21 museum opened in 1999; ten years later it was designated a National Museum of Immigration.
For her decades of enthusiasm and dynamic leadership, Ruth Goldbloom received many honours and awards for a life so very well lived.
David Shepherd & Travis Price
Bullying may be as old as the world — but that doesn't make it right.
That's what two Nova Scotia teenagers thought in 2007 when a fellow Grade 9 student in Berwick was being teased and bullied for wearing a pink shirt on the first day of school. David Shepherd and Travis Price wanted to stand up to those who would bully a person for his choice of clothes or any other reason and show their solidarity with the student.
What David and Travis did was simple yet effective. They purchased and distributed fifty pink tank tops for other students to wear in solidarity. It showed the would-be bullies that the person being targeted did not stand alone. The bullying stopped. In recognition of their accomplishment, Nova Scotia proclaimed the second Thursday of September to be “Stand Up Against Bullying Day.”
In the decade since that day in Berwick, David's and Travis's idea has gone beyond Nova Scotia and been formally championed around the world. Other provinces declared Anti-Bullying Days. So too, a number of countries joined the campaign. In 2012, the United Nations gave its support and declared May 4 as "Anti-Bullying Day."
The dates marking Anti-Bullying Day vary from province to province and country to country, and so does the colour chosen. In Nova Scotia, the symbolic colour remains pink, but there are places where it's purple or blue. Colour aside, it's the idea that counts.
As Travis Price said: ‘I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders. Finally, someone stood up for a weaker kid.’
Dr. Joni Guptill
While most of us keep our focus on where we live in Nova Scotia, there are those who think about — and act in — the much wider world. Dr. Joni Guptill stands out in that latter category. For more than two decades, the Nova Scotia physician has been active in the Nobel-prize-winning organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF), including serving as the president of MSF Canada. In that way, Joni has helped save countless lives in distant lands, in addition to looking after patients in her practice here.
Joni Guptill grew up in Halifax and studied science at Acadia University before going on to graduate as an MD from Dalhousie University in 1981. She is currently back in Halifax, but for several years she had a practice in rural New Brunswick. During the 1980s, Joni travelled in Africa to start to know that continent Those visits rekindled a long-held desire to help those in need in foreign lands. In 1990, while undertaking studies on Tropical Medicine in England, Joni met with MSF. The medical aid organization asked her if she was willing to get involved in their work. She enthusiastically agreed, and opened an Atlantic Canada office for MSF that same year. Not long after, she went with to provide medical aid in Somalia. Over the next two decades, Dr. Joni Guptill served in five emergency MSF missions – in Turkey, Somalia, China, Syria/Iraq and South Sudan — to help out during famines, floods or wars.
Here is Dr. Joni Guptill recounting just one of those missions: “In South Sudan, we were helping people we knew were death-bound with meningitis. When you see a mother in a remote area who has end-stage meningitis and five children; and you know that treating her is going to save her and, consequently, help the survival of those children. . .well, that’s why we do it. Once you’ve done a project like that, you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Raymond Taavel, 1962-2012
Ontario-born Raymond Taavel chose to make Nova Scotia his home, a decision that helped make the province immeasurably better and more inclusive than it was when Raymond moved here in the 1990s.
Raymond grew up in Sault Sainte-Marie, where he first discovered community engagement. He moved to Toronto in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis and was deeply touched by the suffering and discrimination he saw. The experience transformed him into an activist on behalf of those afflicted. He would bring to Halifax that passion and humanitarian commitment.
In Nova Scotia, Raymond found his sexuality was a professional stumbling block. The barriers he encountered ignited his passion to "Be the Change". He served on various committees of Halifax Pride, including as Co-Chair in the early 2000s. Two early victories were convincing Halifax to proclaim Pride Week and to fly the Pride Flag at the Grand Parade. He joined NSRAP and Inter Pride and was a founding member and National President of Fiérté Canada Pride. That organization championed official recognition of LGBT rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in the Equal Marriage. Along the way, Raymond befriended and lobbied politicians at all levels. He opened dialogues, built bridges and helped people see there was nothing to feel threatened about.
On April 17, 2012, Raymond died following a brutal attack after leaving a Halifax gay bar. While not the initial target, he and another patron were verbally and physically attacked by a mentally ill man. Raymond protected his friend, who ran for safety. Raymond suffered a lethal head injury and died on the scene.
Raymond touched many with his passion and compassion, ever advancing the view that gay rights were simply human rights. More than 1000 mourners showed the evening of his death to honour him. The Premier made a speech in the House of Assembly acknowledging Raymond's contributions and the Legislature held a moment of silence. Hi memorial service was preceded by a large public march to Saint Mathew's Church. Posthumously, Raymond received many honours, including the QE II Diamond Jubilee Medal for community engagement and the advancement of LGBT rights in Canada. Locally, the Halifax Pride Flag was dedicated to his memory and placed at the entrance to City Hall and the Gottingen 250 committee installed a plaque near the spot where he died.
How old do you have to be to become an entrepreneur? Alex MacLean proves there is no such thing as an age limit. Rather, the trick is to have a good entrepreneurial idea and to get it out into the world; then work hard and cleverly to make it a success.
By now Alex's story is well known. Three years ago, he was a student at Acadia University, an undergraduate in business. One of his courses was called Venture Exchange, with a requirement that each student come up with a project. In Alex's case, he envisioned a new clothing line, one he called East Coast Lifestyle. He borrowed $800 from his father and with it developed a line of T-shirts and hoodies. It was a small production run, sold to friends.
However, the initial products generated a lot of buzz on the Wolfville campus and beyond. The quickly growing demand was not something Alex ignored. As an entrepreneur, he understood the importance of timing. So, he responded, coming up with more of his distinctive product. Yes, there was a bit of luck, when celebrities were photographed wearing the brand, but Alex recognized the value that publicity had and made sure his supply kept up with the surging demand.
Within a year, Alex had sold more than $1 million worth of his clothing. Not long after, he was the only Canadian in a group of about thirty young entrepreneurs invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama. Since then, East Coast Lifestyle has enjoyed even more growth. The latest news is that Alex is steering his brand carefully into the vast market that is in the United States, and he has his eyes on Asia, Australia and Europe. Now at the three-year mark, Alex's company has already sold more than 500,000 clothing items. It has annual revenues in excess of $3 million and employs nineteen. The projected future growth will see all numbers climb. It's quite a leap from the initial class project, but then that's what a skilled entrepreneur can do.
Dartmouth-born Danielle Fong started showing remarkable skills at fifteen months. By age three she could do some square roots. The regular school system proved to be not for her, so Danielle was mostly home-schooled until she went to Dalhousie University at age 12. Being precocious, however, is not why Danielle Fong is featured here. The reason is because as a young adult this Nova Scotian came up with a sustainable energy idea that has the potential to change the entire world.
After completing a degree at Dalhousie, Danielle went off to Princeton University to study plasma physics. She was 17. Her initial interest was in exploring the idea of producing sustainable energy from nuclear fusion. However, she came to believe "that fusion, if anything, is the power source of the far future, and it is the near future I worry about." She left Princeton in 2007 and headed to Silicon Valley in California, where ideas, energy and start-up companies were everywhere.
In 2008, Danielle found her niche: an innovative idea to create what is known as Regenerative Air Energy Storage (RAES). RAES calls for a method that uses the heat energy created by compressing air, whose heat is captured with water spray and stored for later use. To take that idea and see if it could have practical applications, Danielle combined with two others to found LightSail Energy. The company's aim is to produce the world’s cleanest and most economical energy storage systems. Since then, Danielle has won many honours and awards and her company has sought and obtained major funding (including from Bill Gates), worked out technical details and developed prototypes. Presently, LightSail's RAES technology is being tested in a major way here in Nova Scotia. The former Bowater Mersey Paper Mill in Liverpool is being re-purposed as part of the project. When completed, Nova Scotia will have the world's first combined wind energy and RAES system. Danielle Fong's vision is that going forward, the technology she conceived may well be "powering electrical grids across the world."
The Hadhad Family
Except for the Mi'kmaq, the ancestors of everyone in Nova Scotia came here from somewhere else. That makes most of us newcomers in a sense. Sometimes our ancestors journeyed here centuries ago; sometimes the memories of a previous homeland are more fresh. In the end, it does not matter how long someone has lived in the province — what counts is how they contribute to their new homeland. The Hadhad family, who came to Antigonish as recent refugees, are perhaps the best known of the newest Nova Scotians.
Their story begins in Damascus, Syria, where the Hadhad family operated a chocolate factory that once was one of the biggest in the Middle East. Syria, however, descended into civil war, with violence touching all aspects of society, especially the civilian population. The Hadhad factory was blown apart by a missile in 2011. The family fled to Lebanon, but were confined to a refugee camp, unable to work.
Early in 2016, the Government of Canada began bringing in large numbers of Syrian refugees. Most ended up in the big cities, but people in some small Nova Scotia communities also asked to welcome refugees. Tareq Hadhad was the first to come to Antigonish, followed by his father, mother and three siblings. They began working at the trade they knew well: making chocolates. At first, it had to be small-scale production, not having a factory. The Hadhads started selling what they called "Peace by Chocolate" at local farmers' markets. People liked the product and wanted more. Then the Prime Minister of Canada shared the family's story with the world and demand shot up. More family members arrived in Antigonish. The Hadhad family found a larger space to produce their chocolates, hired people beyond the family to help out.
The last word goes to he Hadhad family: "When our family was invited into Canada and become full Canadian citizens our dreams came true. With the support of our new community Antigonish and the people of Nova Scotia we have rebuilt our chocolate company and are once again doing the work we love."