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The Halifax Explosion


Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, the morning of December 6, 1917 was a morning like any other morning in Halifax and Dartmouth. Children woke up and headed to school. Parents went to work, many of them serving the war effort. However, before long, these cities and their people would be forever changed by a combination of both bad luck and human error.

At about 8:45 in the morning, the Imo, a Belgian relief ship, collided with the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship. Its prow missed the hold carrying 225,000 kilograms of TNT and other explosives, but sparks flew and almost immediately oily black smoke began powering from the Mont-Blanc's hull. The crew, realizing the terrible disaster that was about to occur, abandoned ship and rowed furiously toward the Dartmouth shore. The French crew spoke no English and no one understood the shouts of warning on the shore.

The Mont-Blanc drifted toward the Halifax pier. Onlookers gathered to watch the burning ship, and Halifax police and fire crews, unaware of the danger, debated how best to put out the flames. The gathering crowds would only compound the tragedy that was about to occur.

At 9:04:34 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded. Its steel hull burst into a fury of red-hot, twisted metal that rained down on the cities. It was, and remains today, the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in the history of the world. Part of the Mont-Blanc's anchor landed nearly four kilometres away in the Northwest Arm, and a gun barrel landed more than five kilometres from the harbour in Dartmouth.

Nearly everything within a two kilometre radius of the blast was completely destroyed in a hail of fire, metal and flying glass. The blast caused a tsunami of water to pour into the cities, flooding as far up the shore as to where Barrington Street is today and pushing the Imo onto the Dartmouth shore. The pressure waves were enough to bend iron bars and shatter concrete. Fires broke out around the city and buildings collapsed onto their helpless inhabitants. Rail lines, telephone, cable telegraph, water and electrical services were all gone.

As terrible as the destruction was, it paled in comparison to the human tragedy. More than 1,500 people were killed immediately. Over the next hours and days, more than 1,000 more would die. Nine thousand were injured, many with brutal wounds as bad as anything seen in the war. Hundreds were blinded and their bodies torn by flying debris. Others were crushed as their homes and workplaces caved in. The old Mi'kmaq settlement at Tuft's Cove was flattened and destroyed and would never be rebuilt. That evening, the disaster was compounded by the arrival of the winter's first blizzard, which blanketed the city, covering many survivors still trapped in the rubble.

Within minutes, the people of Halifax and Dartmouth pulled together to recover and to save their families and neighbours. British naval ships in the harbour were some of the first to respond to the disaster. Within a few days, help from as far away as Boston arrived. Students at Dalhousie's medical school, some of whom had started their studies only a few months earlier, were pressed into service. Hundreds of wounded were crowded onto the first trains away from the city. Doctors, nurses and supplies from across Canada began to pour into Halifax on the trains. The people of Halifax and Dartmouth soon knew they were not alone.


The tragedy that unfolded that day in Dartmouth and Halifax was of almost unimaginable scale. The heroism, generosity and compassion of Canadians, and of our American and British friends, were without precedent. Many Canadians will say that Canada as a nation was born during the Great War on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. However, I know many Nova Scotians who would say that it was born on the burned and battered streets of Halifax and Dartmouth on December 6, 1917.