At the time this article was
written Bart Armstrong was a freelance writer living in Halifax
In Halifax on August 12, 1811
the cornerstone was laid for a building that would serve as the seat of
government for the 70,000 residents of the colony of Nova Scotia. In February
1994 this same building, home of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly,
celebrated its 175th year of continuous use.
The laying of the cornerstone for
Province House was one of the last official duties of Sir George Prevost before
being transferred to Quebec as Administrator of Lower Canada. Later he was
appointed Governor-in-Chief of the Canada's and then Commander-in-Chief of the
British forces during the war of 1812.
At the 3 p.m. arrival of His
Excellency and entourage, the assembled military troops, both regular and
militia gave the standard Royal Salute and the band played "God Save the
King." Prevost was then greeted by the Commissioners who would take charge
of the construction project. They in turn escorted Sir George to a marquis
provided for the occasion where he was received by the Grand Master and various
officers of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.
After refreshments were served the
ceremony commenced with a benediction by the Grand Chaplain. Hundreds of loyal
townsfolk joined with the leaders of the military, religious and political
communities to hear the many speeches that followed. Officials attending the
historic event included the Chief Justice, the Bishop of Nova Scotia, the Judge
of the Admiralty, Attorney General, Treasurer, Speaker of the Assembly,
Secretary, the architect and commissioners for the building's construction and
"May the Building, that shall
arise from this foundation perpetuate the Loyalty and Liberality of the
province of Nova Scotia." (Sir George Prevost Lieutenant Governor of Nova
The latter was a man named Charles
Morris who was the third man, all of the same name, to hold such an office.
They were father, son and grandson. The fourth Surveyor-General, John Spry
Morris was a great grandson to the first Charles, the very man who laid out the
original streets of Halifax and Dartmouth upon their founding in 1749 and 1750
The original plans of 1809 called
for a legislative building measuring 80 feet by 50 feet with a total cost of
about 5,000 pounds Sterling. If constructed it would have been the smallest
legislative building in Canada, smaller even than the one in Charlottetown.
But soon a modified plan called for
a larger structure measuring 140 by 70 feet and a new cost of an estimated
Due to war efforts and a lack of
skilled trades people, the entire project took eight years to complete at a
whopping cost of 52,000 pounds.
On February 11, 1819 the new building
was finally officially opened as a legislature. One of the first official acts
by the politicians on that day was the voting in of their own salary increases.
The 175th Anniversary
This year politicians and the electors
gathered to celebrate the birthday of the building. On February 10, 1994 a very
select group of politicians and other officials were entertained at a formal
dinner hosted by the Bank of Nova Scotia. The following day, on exactly the
175th birthday, the present Lieutenant Governor, Lloyd Crouse presided over a
formal ceremony in the legislative chamber followed by an entertaining yet
informative skit about the building and its occupants over the years. Two days
later the building was opened for public tours and displays.
At 2:00 p.m. on the 11th many of
the current MLAs sat in their seats in the legislature. Around them sat many
dignitaries including the Right Honourable Robert L. Stanfield, a former Nova
Scotia Premier, former Lieutenant Governor Al Abraham, former Premier and now
Senator John Buchanan, Senator Al Graham, MPs Mary Clancy and Geoff Regan,
Chief Justice Lorne Clarke and other officials including several former
Speakers of the Legislature. In the public galleries sat some 200 guests and
members of the public.
After the playing of the national
anthem and a prayer offered by Nova Scotia MicMac Grand Chief Ben Syliboy,
local actor Gary Vermeir entertained those gathered in a carefully prepared
skit that saw him dressed in costume of the day and impersonating the
"ghost of Jacob Hurley," Province House's first custodian.
Thirty-four year old Vermeir is a
partner in the four year old production company "Brainstorm
Productions" which specializes in doing productions for live conferences.
Vermeir studied a large package of materials supplied by the Legislature and
then wrote his own script.
He wore a mid 1880's costume of a
well dressed worker. It consisted of black pants and a white blouse with formal
frilly cuffs and high neckline under a black highcut waste coat and black
Throughout his presentation
"the ghost" would refer to a variety of past officials by their
appointments. As he spoke of an early Lieutenant Governor he would then turn
the floor over to the current Lieutenant Governor for a few comments. He would
continue his skit until it was time to introduce another key player, be it the
Premier, the Speaker or the leader of the Official Opposition. Each current
occupant of office would then take a few minutes to pass on his views of the
While many officials were unable to
attend the ceremony, warm greetings were read from two former premiers, a
former Speaker, the leader of the provincial NDP and the Prime Minister of
Canada. Greetings were also read from the Speaker of the House of Commons in
Ghost Jacob's skit took the guests
through the building's long history. With wit, wisdom, and considerable humour
his one person, several act play began with the story of how the estimates to
build the structure were more than doubled. Mid-way through the presentation he
remembered when the Premier still had his office within the building. Those
assembled, including the Premier laughed at the reference to the recent
relocating of his offices to another building across the road.
The sound of a pin dropping could
have been heard as Jacob told of the 1840 duel Joseph Howe fought with his
adversary, the young John C. Haliburton. John had taken offence to an article
Howe had published and felt it was an attack on his father Chief Justice
Haliburton (author of Sam Slick) who had presided over the Howe libel trial of
On the morning of March 14, 1840
the two appeared near the tower in Point Pleasant Park. As the ghost explained,
Haliburton first fired but missed his target. As the audience sat in silence
Jacob said that Howe, a marksman, took slow but very careful aim, then quickly
raised the pistol skyward and fired his shot with the exclamation "let the
Jacob also told of another duel
with less fortunate results. Richard Uniacke, son of the Attorney General was
being tried for murder. He was tried by his very own father, after he shot and
killed William Bowie after being challenged to a duel. In those days a man was
expected to uphold his honour and go through with the challenge, even at the
cost of life.
Uniacke's July 1840 trial was the
first criminal trial to take place in the Supreme Court chamber, now the
library at the Legislature. After all was said and done Uniacke walked away a
free man for upholding his honour.
Jacob also told how the legislative
chamber was arranged a little different than it is today. There once were about
20 open fireplaces in the building. In the early days the Speaker's chair was
along the west wall which resulted in the government side sitting on his right,
the side with some of the building's open fireplaces. The opposition, on the
traditional left, sat along the wall with many windows and not fireplaces —the
coldest spot in the chamber.
Recalling the 1840's feelings of
Nova Scotians, ghost Jacob also told of the antics of MLA Lawrence O'Connor
Doyle. At the time Maine and New Brunswick were heavily engaged in a dispute
regarding logging rights. Upon the announcement of the arbitrator's decision,
one said to favour the Americans, Doyle started to gaze out of the upper
He then noticed that in the
architectural design above many of the windows there were what he thought to be
carvings of American Eagles. In anger he took his cane and smashed a number of
their heads. Later it was discovered that they were not American eagles but
British falcons. To this day some of them remain headless.
But the ghost said it must have
rubbed off, as Doyle was later to have "lost his head and even moved south
to the US."
After the skit was completed a
piper played happy birthday and those gathered moved to the Red Chamber at the
other end of the building to enjoy a ceremonial cake and other refreshments.
The following Sunday Province House
was opened up for the public. Several hundred visitors were allowed to enter
the Premier's old office, the cabinet room, the Red Room, the Assembly Chamber,
the library and public galleries.
Guests could view a video on how
the legislature works, look at many displays of early day artifacts and pick up
a free copy of a ceremonial 175th anniversary poster, or purchase at little
cost ceremonial pins, mugs and tote bags all suitably engraved with the
artist's logo specially designed for the occasion.
In the Assembly Chamber they could
actually sit in the Speaker's, MLA's or premier's chairs and stand in the very
room that held its first legislative meetings in 1758. Ninety years later in
this same room our forefathers saw, for the first time in a British colony, the
establishment of responsible government.
It is here also that many heated
debates before confederation took place and were men like Charles Tupper and
John Thompson served as MLA's and then Premiers before becoming Prime Ministers
Charles Dickens visited the
legislature in 1842 and later described his recollections "like looking at
Westminster through the wrong end of the telescope."
A visit to the library would put
the visitor in the room that once was the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and site
of many other famous trials besides the "freedom of the press" trial
of 1835. Here four pirates from the "Saladin" were tried in 1844.
Only after the ship floundered in Nova Scotia waters did the horrible story
surface. They attempted to seize the 70 tons of copper, 13 bars of gold and
about $20,000 in coin from the Saladin in which they were employed. In the
process eight of the ten other members of the crew were murdered, two were set
free at trial and the four remaining crew were sentenced to hang, a sentence
carried out within days.
Today the library and adjoining
spaces and a few satellite offices are the home of some 200,000 books on
government and Nova Scotia history. The oldest book in the collection is an
astronomy book translated from Arabic to Latin and dated 1488.