At the time this article was written John
Leefe was the member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for Queens.
It was that great Nova Scotia politician
Joseph Howe, who advised his countrymen to repair their "great public
structures". It seems entirely appropriate that we, who are privileged to
serve in the very legislative chamber which rang to the clarion call of his
voice, are now pursuing the restoration of the old Customs House and Post
Office on Hollis Street in Halifax.
In 1863 a legislative committee recommended
to the Government of Nova Scotia construction of a public building to house the
provincial post office, customs and railway department. Work began in 1864 on a
building designed by David Sterling in the architectural style of the Italian
Renaissance. Constructed by John Brookfield it adequately reflected the mature
pride of Nova Scotians in their flourishing province.
Customs and post office services became
responsibilities of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 and pursuant to
Section 108 of the BNA Act it seemed appropriate that the new building should
become the property of the federal government. It will surprise no one with a
knowledge of federal-provincial relations that it took four years to determine
which level of government should pay the costs of construction and in what
proportions! Construction was finally completed in 1868.
In the chain of events following
Confederation, the Tupper Government which had dragged Nova Scotia into the new
Dominion was thrown out of office, Tupper himself going on to Ottawa to serve
in the government of Sir John A. Macdonald. The new anti-confederate government
led by William Annand and Howe held thirty-six of thirty-eight seats in the
Nova Scotia House and quickly moved for repeal of that section of the BNA Act.
It is not widely recognized by Canadian historians
but Nova Scotia was very close to armed insurrection in its opposition to
Confederation. By 1869 it was apparent that the Imperial Government had no
intention of allowing Nova Scotia to regain her independence. Howe and the
moderate and more realistic anti-confederates revised their position and began
to seek more favourable terms for Nova Scotia within Confederation.
Howe became a member of Macdonald's cabinet
and, among other matters, presided over the negotiations about which government
should pay the construction costs for the Customs House. The settlement of 1871
called for Ottawa to pay Nova Scotia $84,000 of a total cost of construction of
Over the intervening years the building has
ceased to function as a customs house. The post office has long since moved
into newer quarters, as has the provincial museum, which was temporarily housed
in one room. Subsequently, the building served as headquarters for
"H" Division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and offices of the Bank
of Canada. For the past several years it has been used for dead storage by the
federal government. Extensive changes to the interior and the exterior
deterioration due to pollution and the passage of time left this building a dim
reflection of its once proud self.
Late in the legislative session of 1980, I
proposed a motion seconded by then Deputy Speaker Arthur Donahoe, that the
province acquire the Old Customs House from the federal government and that it
become an annex to Province House. The resolution was passed and consequent
negotiations led to transfer in the fall of 1981. Nova Scotia agreed to pay
half the assessed value of the land on which the building stands, restore the
exterior, maintain it and use it to serve as badly needed space for services to
members of the House of Assembly.
Since the time of transfer a multiparty
committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Speaker Donahoe has been struck to
advise the government on reconstruction. The exterior will eventually be
restored as nearly as practicably possible to its 19th century appearance. The
interior will be totally refurbished to include office space for government and
official opposition caucuses, independent members, the Office of the Speaker,
meeting rooms and dining facilities. As an annex to the Legislative Assembly,
it will fall within the jurisdiction of the Speaker.
Thus, the wheel has turned full circle,
though the recent negotiations for return of this historic building were
characterized by a co-operative and friendly spirit unlike those of over a
hundred years ago. In itself this says much for the maturation of Canada in the