The Politics of the Ligoure House

Most people in Halifax, and in Nova Scotia, think Dr Strang did a good job, warning, informing and explaining to us as much as he could during the height of Covid-19.  As most of you know, Dr Strang is the province’s medical officer of health and he was the voice of reason and good advice during very desperate times.

But many don’t know that he received the first Dr Clement Ligoure Award from Doctors Nova Scotia in 2021.And appropriately so.

Dr Ligoure, a Black immigrant from Trinidad, graduated in 1916 from Queen’s University medical school in Kingston, Ont.  He was likely the last Black person allowed to graduate before Queen’s closed its door to Black people who wanted to study medicine. 

Below: Front page of The Atlantic Advocate; the Ligoure house as it stood about 100 years ago. (photos credit: Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia).

Ligoure came to Halifax, where he was denied hospital privileges because he was Black.  He  founded a small private hospital, the Amanda Hospital (named after his mother), in his home at 5814 North St.  He wasn’t paid, because only poor people and Blacks attended his clinic.  He lived from hand to mouth.  A talented writer and editor, he founded  the first Black newspaper in the Maritimes – The Atlantic Advocate.  According to David Woods a long-time researcher and author of Extraordinary Acts, a play which related the experiences of the Black community during the Halifax Explosion, Ligoure was co-founder of the No. 2 Construction Battalion — Canada’s only all-Black unit that served during World War I.  He came to Halifax to be the medical officer for the Batallion.  He was denied this honour because the army told him he had failed a test — but he in fact he had passed.  He was not allowed serve. However the army used his newspaper, the Atlantic Advocate, to advertise for soldiers, but the army never paid for the ads.  Ligoure was owed $10,000 (more than $180,000 in today’s money).  He was taken advantage of, abused and denied a paying career.

Dr Ligoure became a hero during the Halifax Explosion.  Hundreds and thousands were maimed on Dec. 6, 1917 when two warships – one laden with explosives –collided in the Halifax narrows.  Dr Ligoure worked tirelessly around the clock tending to people missing limbs, people with glass in their eyes and others withs terrible injuries. He saved hundreds of lives.  He worked for free.  In the night,  he and his friend, a Black porter who shared the house with him, went to buildings toppled or flattened to try to haul people from the wreckage and save them.  Dr Ligoure’s selflessness and integrity was clear.

HRM plays coy

Is it too much to ask for his house, the building that housed the Amanda hospital, be saved from a Halifax developer’s wrecking ball?  We in Friends of the Halifax Common and Development Options Halifax think it’s not too much to ask.  But HRM (Halifax Regional Municipality) Council played coy right up until the last moment. 

Yesterday, about two dozen of us rallied in front of Halifax city hall to put pressure on council to save the Ligoure house.  Developer Louis Lawen of Dexel owns the Ligoure house, and some of the houses around it.  Why did he assemble the buildings in the first place — surely not simply to earn money from the rents.  He must have had a plan to develop the block.  And if the Ligoure house had no heritage designation, Lawen could tear it down “by right” and build anything there. 

Ligoure House today, at 5814 North St. Halifax (credit: Matthew Byard)

We got support from far and wide, from both the Black community and from white people in the city.   And it was William Breckenridge — from Friends of the Halifax Common who applied for the heritage status for the Ligoure house — not HRM.  It was citizens of Halifax — not HRM — that initiated the heritage designation of the house. 

“I don’t think we should rely on buildings to preserve Black heritage. There’s a lot more to it.”

Councillor Lindell Smith, quoted in the Toronto Star here

Now some on HRM Council are trying to gaslight us.  Councillor Smith told the media  there was no chance the house would be torn down.  There was no plan to do it, he had already privately discussed the matter with the building’s owner — so why did we make a fuss?

Rally for heritage designation for the Dr Ligoure house, Jan. 24, 2023. In front of Halifax city hall (credit: Matthew Byard)

Councillor Smith’s words at HRM Council meeting was his way of cheapening the efforts of local activists. He said “I don’t think we should rely on building to preserve Black heritage. There’s a lot more to it.”

In the 23 years I’ve lived here, there are y few things HRM council has done to preserve African Nova Scotians’ heritage.  Of course in the mid-’60s the city did the opposite:  council of the day was instrumental in destroying Africville. Halifax gave the hundreds of Black households who lived there a few hundred dollars and then forced them to relocate to purpose-built public housing in the city’s north end (Uniacke Square).   The city even destroyed the community’s church.  Some time ago, money was made available to rebuild the Africville church  — but where thousands of people once lived is now a park.  The park is not serviced by city buses and it is hard to access by people with disabilities. Despite very fast moving and heavy traffic on north Barrington St., there is no sidewalk alongside the park.   Up to recently, the park was used mainly by people who drove to the park and let their dogs run free. 

We are now six days away from African Heritage Month – and HRM Council has decided to declare Dr Ligoure’s house a heritage property.

The “silencing” at city hall

But we did not have an easy time alerting citizens to the issue.

For instance we couldn’t speak at the heritage hearing at the council meeting yesterday.  No one except the owner Louis Lawen of Dexel Developments, could speak.  It seems the “municipal standard” in all NS municipalities is that no one but the owner of the property has the right to speak when it comes to saving their heritage property.  The interesting thing is that the  NS Heritage Property Act is vague about these “silencing” guidelines. 

Still, at least one city “father” was insulting.  Councillor Lindell Smith scoffed that at no time was the Ligoure house at risk of being demolished.  But without placing a heritage designation on the property, the owner can do what he wants with it – including applying to demolish it.  Smith was gaslighting us – saying, in effect, “why are you people making such a fuss?”

We have learned through bitter experience we can’t leave it up to HRM Council and the developers to do the right thing — unless they are prodded or pushed.  They force us to make a fuss because we’ve been disappointed too many times.

Featured image above: Portrait of Dr Ligoure, and a scene from the Halifax Explosion, Dec. 6, 1917 (credit: Doctors Nova Scotia site)

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