featured Poverty

Brenda Thompson: Something smells here – Fighting poor people in a poor people’s graveyard

Photo SImon de Vet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – This week the whole country saw how the City of Halifax treats its poorest citizens, the homeless. What is remarkable is that it happened on the grounds of an unmarked graveyard of poor house inmates. The crappy treatment of poor people on this piece of land is historic.

The second poor house in Nova Scotia was erected in 1752 on the ground’s kitty corner to the Halifax Library on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street. It housed homeless people, sick people and criminals (who were usually criminals because they did something to feed themselves and/or their children). 

Vagrants, unwed mothers, people sick with various conditions such as diphtheria, immigrants from other provinces and countries all lived in the Halifax Poor House, often sharing beds and vermin from sheets that had not been cleaned in months. 

The ‘harmless insane’ (addicts, those with mental health issues and those with Downs Syndrome) had the “Devil beaten out” of them on these grounds. When they died of disease or despair, their bodies were unceremoniously buried in the grounds where the old library now sits and a statue of Churchill strides over them. 

This burial ground – or potters field as it was known then – reaffirmed their status in life. They were poor, therefore, they were unimportant to the officials of the day. The poor house inmates were often buried several at a time without shroud, coffins or markers to note their existence.  

Thomas Raddall, well known writer of Nova Scotia history even wrote about this piece of land remarking on how much the area around it tended to stink. 

“Their poor house dead were buried hastily in shallow graves in the yard, and for many years there were complaints about the smell which hung over this part of Spring Garden Road.”*

*Raddall, Thomas  Warden of the North  Nimbus Publishing 1993 p.55

This week the mayor and councillors of Halifax added to that stink when they sent in the police in full riot gear to evict the homeless residents who were living in temporary housing on that same land with its unmarked graves. 

Several times the council has been asked to acknowledge the poor house people buried there. Several times this request has been ignored. This week the City of Halifax added to the history of poor people on this land by violently removing homeless people and assaulting and arresting the people who were trying to help unhoused people keep a place to live in their tents and homes. Halifax mayor Savage the city councillors were all unrepentant about what they had done, again, to poor people on that particular piece of land.

Developers are salivating over that piece of land, the unmarked graveyard of poor people, wanting to build profit-generating condominiums for richer-than-the-rest-of-us-people. 

City officials just added to the stink of this land’s history of poor people in Nova Scotia.

Brenda Thompson is the author of A wholesome Horror, Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. ISBN 978-0-9868733-5-5. Available at a few selected bookstores, public libraries, and through the publisherHer latest book is Finding Fortune, documenting and imagining the life of Rose Fortune. Check out her blog Poor houses in Nova Scotia.

See also: Brenda Thompson: Punishing the poor in Nova Scotia, then and now

See also: Book review: A wholesome Horror, Poor Houses in Nova Scotia

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  1. The sadness of what happened is how a caring society should have dealt with this situation. The tens of thousands of dollars could have gone toward finding these people a place to stay. The money spent on police, pepper spray bottles and days of mediation could have been used to find temporary housing for the people contained within those shacks
    Yes, the structures were an eyesore, but it was a blight on a community that would allow fellow human beings to live under their noses like that. Shame on you Halifax and shame on the citizens that stood and watched this disaster unfold on the grounds containing the bones of the poor who suffered in this exact place.
    Let’s look at one example of how this could have turned out differently:
    If every person who stood there passively watching the police rip and tear, were to pass a plate or cup around as they do at churches, the collection money could go toward helping these desperate people. Add the costs involved in police, demolition, removal etc. We are talking tens of thousands of Halifax budget going to pay bullies to beat the crap out of them and pepper spray anyone coming close to stopping the carnage.
    Come on Halifax, the heart of universities and across from the amazing library of higher knowledge, surely a few people are smart enough to figure this out. It isn’t brawl and muscle that you need. It’s a couple of students or concerned people in the community to help them out. These are human beings, and every human deserves to be treated with respect no matter what level of our society they currently reside in.

    1. “shame on the citizens that stood and watched this disaster”

      What would you have them do? You must not be from Halifax. Even yelling at a HRP cop is enough for them to arrest you for assault on an officer and subsequently beat the crap out of you (shouldn’t be, but HRP officers make up their own rules and lie about it later, because no one is going to discipline them or reprimand them, even if you can prove what really happened). HRP cops generally have a “I can do whatever the hell I want, let’s see you try to stop me” attitude. They could care less what the public thinks of them, because they are always right, and their chief doesn’t do a whole lot to try to hide that attitude in the press. Every violent and deceitful thing they do to people is justified in their minds, because the person on the recieving end always deserves it according to them.

      1. I don’t think she meant literally stand by, like 2 feet away. She meant citizens who watched it on tv or read about it and remained silent.

  2. I did not write “Shame on them”. And yes, I am from Halifax and dealt with the Halifax Cops MANY times when I was a housing activist in the 1980s. I live in rural NS now and deal with the neglect of politicians here. Please do not assume things that are not written. Wow.

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