As you’ve probably heard, Halifax Regional Municipality recently rebranded. The flag bearing the new “H∧LIF∧X” logo has been flying in the parade square for a couple months now. That logo and name change also came with a prescription for a new philosophy on living, working and governing in Halifax: “Be bold.”
The question is whether the Mayor and Councillors are up to the challenge. Halifax’s willingness to embrace its bold side was recently tested as the municipality considered whether to give the land and the people of Africville the dignity and respect they are owed—at the controversial cost of a rare and valued commodity in Halifax: an off-leash dog park.
Haligonians know the history of this location. After the homes of African Nova Scotians were demolished and the 150-year-old community razed in the 1960s, what was christened “Seaview Park” was officially opened in 1985. Officials declared it a National Historic Site in 1996. In 2010, then-mayor Peter Kelly issued a formal apology on behalf of the city, and presented an agreement with the Africville Genealogy Society to contribute to the reconstruction of the Seaview United Baptist Church to serve as an Africville memorial.
Today, a replica of the church stands as a museum, and as a reminder of the stories of community and spirit in addition to the tragedy and loss. Every year at the end of July, the Africville Genealogy Society holds a weekend-long reunion at the park.
And here’s the disconnection. Why have we allowed dogs to have the run of a National Historic Site? What is the message this sends?
It’s a question the Africville Heritage Trust and the Africville Genealogy Society have been asking for a long time. Last summer, Councillor Jennifer Watts, who represents the district in which Africville Park is situated, finally came forward and asked Halifax to consider decommissioning the off-leash dog park.
Last month, a staff report on the issue was presented to Halifax Regional Council. It recommended that HRM decommission the off-leash dog area at Africville Park by July 18. The report didn’t suggest an alternative off-leash location to replace the site. Instead, it noted that staff should review the “program and service levels for off-leash facilities to assess requirements, management and programming costs.”
Councillor Watts suggested an amendment to the report that would have the municipality “initiate the commissioning of a fenced off-leash dog park to the east of the Africville parking lot, and hold a community consultation prior to July 31.” The new off-leash dog park, “based on community feedback, a staff report, and approval by Regional Council,” per her amendment, would be established some time in 2014.
To their credit, many Councillors agreed in principle with the decommissioning of the park, but unfortunately took issue with the rushed timing of those recommendations. Several suggested that the existing park should not be closed if an alternative was not available at the time of closure.
But I think they missed the point: the most essential aspect of this whole discussion isn’t about dogs or their owners. It’s about honouring the site’s history. I say this as a dog owner who fully understands the need for dogs to have a safe place to run, and who recognizes that there aren’t enough places in Halifax for dogs to do that (especially fenced-in off-leash areas like this one).
Africville isn’t just a park—it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol of where Halifax has been, where we are and where we want to go. It’s not just another patch of land. What happens there carries a greater significance than if it happened elsewhere in Halifax.
And this isn’t just an issue that should be of concern only to those with an “interest” in the history of Africville or an “interest” in off-leash dog parks. It’s an opportunity for all of us to speak up about what kind of city we want Halifax to be—and what we mean by “bold.”
In the end, Council voted to decommission the existing off-leash area as soon as replacement is available, but not before. Safe? Yes. Bold? Not particularly.
We can never do enough to right the wrongs committed to the people of Africville, but we can be clear about our intentions to offer this place, and those whose families lost everything there, the respect and dignity they deserve. With this initiative, we have a prime opportunity to do that. HRM must now begin the process of identifying and establishing a new off-leash dog area before that opportunity can become a reality. Let’s hope it happens soon.
Because we all know that Africville is not just any other park.