Halifax, Nova Scotia


The sound of a gunshot was unmistakable.

I was sitting on the picturesque front lawn of Halifax’s City Hall, waiting to meet someone for an interview. Moments after she arrived, the gunshot sounded. Instinctively, I jumped and my hands flung to cover my head.

She started laughing.

Apparently a noon gunshot is a daily occurrence in downtown Halifax, fired from the landmark Citadel Hill. This tradition dates back to 1857. The Halifax Noon Gun even has its own Twitter account (@HalifaxNoonGun) with more than 2,300 followers, and tweets “#boom #halifax” every day at exactly noon (yes, this is A Thing).

Who knew.

(Clearly not me.)

This is not all I’ve learned about Halifax since arriving early this morning. Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia, and with nearly 420,000 people, it is home to almost half (44%) of the province. Does this matter? Short answer: yes. My hometown, London Ontario, has almost the same population as Halifax, but it’s the 6th largest city and third (or fourth, depending on your definition) largest economic region in the province of Ontario. Do you think Halifax is viewed differently in Nova Scotia than London is in Ontario? You bet. (This is a tangent I could go on and on and on about. Will leave this be for now!)

Halifax is also big – and at just shy of 5,500 square kilometers, I mean really big. To put it in context, Toronto is about 630 square kilometers and Calgary is around 825 square kilometers. The entire province of Prince Edward Island could fit inside Halifax. Just think about the infrastructure challenges this creates. Halifax’s large size is due in part to municipal restructuring which has taken place across the province over the past few decades. In 1996, the former City of Halifax, City of Dartmouth, Town of Bedford and County of Halifax amalgamated to become the Halifax Regional Municipality (or “HRM”). Only recently has it been rebranded to be just “Halifax”, with beautiful new signage visible throughout the city. Halifax City Council includes a mayor and 16 councillors, reduced from 23 councillors after the last municipal election in 2012.

Today, there are 51 municipalities in Nova Scotia, including 3 regions (Halifax being one), 21 rural municipalities, and 27 towns. Nova Scotia municipalities are subject to the provincial Municipal Government Act. Halifax has its own charter, the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.

The Halifax Charter and Nova Scotia Municipal Government Act define the term “mayor” as being “the member of council elected at large to be the chair of council”. The duties of the mayor are identified as presiding over meetings, monitoring the administration and government of the municipality, and communicating information and making recommendations to council. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, this falls around the middle of the spectrum on powers provided to mayors by provincial legislation in Canada.

One of the immediately striking things about Halifax is the seemingly closer relationship between the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO, elsewhere called City Manager). Council’s procedural rules (refereed to as ‘Administrative Order Number One’) includes the phrase “the Mayor and CAO jointly” surprisingly frequently when defining how certain procedural decisions are made. Even at Council, the Mayor and CAO are seated next to one another on an elevated platform. This is something I’ve not come across before.

Although it’s still early in this process, the interviews already have my head spinning. On some interview questions, there is clear consensus. On others, there is divergence – but with patterns emerging in the perspectives shared by politicians vs. administrators vs. community members. And then there are the comments that I’m not sure what to do with yet.

For example, several people have mused about connections between a mayor’s brand and their city’s brand. This came up several times today. In some cases, people seem to think there is a strong relationship. Others have suggested there is no link. Case in point:

Interviewee A: “When we think about cities, we think about the mayor. When think about Calgary, we think about Nenshi. It used to be that when we thought about Toronto, we’d think about Ford. The mayor shapes how people view a city. The way a mayor looks and acts, it matters. [‚Ķ] The mayor shapes sense of place.”

Interviewee B: “People have an intense sense of pride in where they live. It doesn’t matter who the mayor is. I wouldn’t change my opinion about my city, or any city, because of the mayor.”

This is a curious but important point. Is part of the role of mayors to embody the culture, uniqueness and aspirations of their city? Or are they just individuals elected to chair meetings and ceremonially ‘lead’ their city? I don’t know yet.

Every city has it’s quirks (I’m looking at you @HalifaxNoonGun). The extent to which mayors play a role in shaping, galvanizing and amplifying the unique personality of their cities is an important question for understanding the role of mayors generally in Canada’s cities.

So far Halifax has given me lots to think about, between moments of distraction from the beautiful architecture and interesting people watching. I have a feeling each city will teach me something, and Halifax is certainly not going to disappoint.

And, from now on when it’s noon in Halifax, I’ll be ready.




Welcome to Halifax.



Halifax City Council meeting.



My new friend, the Citadel.



Totally epic public library.



Top level of public library.



Rooftop patio of public library.



Another kind of patio, by the water. This PhD thing is all work, work, work.