It even startles locals. I know a longtime Parks Canada employee at the fort who told me about a jumpy colleague. “He’s still not used to it and he’s been here for a long time “
But it’s unsuspecting visitors who tend to get the biggest fright.
According to local lore, then-President Bill Clinton’s security detail crouched for cover and shielded the commander-in-chief when the cannon went off at the start of the G7 leaders’ summit in June 1995.
The cannon’s roar has been part of the city’s daily life for more than 200 years. It’s a reminder that Halifax has been a diehard military town since the earliest days of colonial settlement, when its massive harbour was a strategic gem for the Royal Navy.
Few persist today, but there was a time when every community with a British fort would have had a noon gun. The tradition is also carried on in places such as the Lion Battery in Cape Town, Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, and Signal Hill in St. John’s, N.L. Vancouver has its 9 O’Clock Gun, fired in Stanley Park at 9 p.m.
Halifax’s cannon is a 1970s reproduction of a Blomefield gun made in 1809. It fires a one-pound charge of black powder, its detonation synchronized with the atomic clocks at the National Research Council in Ottawa.
Dank weather and low clouds amplify the blast, sometimes even triggering car alarms. The Noon Gun used to fire four-pound charges, but they were scaled back as residents complained.
It’s a military custom, but civilians perform it. The gunners are members of the Citadel’s staff, sometimes dressed in a blue uniform of the 3rd Brigade, The Royal Regiment of Artillery, a copy of the uniforms worn in 1869.
The British army didn’t leave Halifax Citadel until 1906, and the Canadian army stayed until 1951. When it was an active military base, the Noon Gun was among many signals used to alert soldiers to their daily routines. There was also an evening gun, and a series of signals from bugle calls and bagpipes.
Its most important use, however, was to help mariners set their chronometers—essential navigation tools. In harbour, crews would watch for the gun’s jet of white smoke and set their timepieces to noon.
Locals occasionally grumble about the Noon Gun, but they also note its absence. The cannon fires every day except Christmas, and when a malfunction prevents or delays it, Parks Canada gets phone calls.
Editor’s Note: When Halifax Magazine first published this article, we accidentally omitted paragraph 11. We regret the error.