ometime this summer, Halifax became, maybe, the best city in the world.
Earlier this year, Halifax came in at the top of Maclean’s annual ranking of the best communities in the country, up from 131st place in 2020. The editors at Maclean’s haven’t fallen in love with donairs, watery Keith’s and "Barrett’s Privateers" singalongs. Something big has changed. The pandemic shift to remote working short-circuited the formula the magazine uses to determine desirability.
"Assuming remote work is here to stay, we ranked the same 415 communities across the country as we did the previous year, but with an eye toward great living for people who don’t have to worry about finding a job within commuting distance. Once we eliminated unemployment rates and incomes—categories where Atlantic Canada has historically lagged other parts of the country—the region’s cities rose to the top," Claire Brownell writes for Maclean’s. "Halifax took the No. 1 spot, thanks to its affordable housing prices that come with all the benefits of city living: excellent health care, top-notch internet access and a wide variety of bars and restaurants."
Then U.S. News and World Report published its annual ranking of the best countries in the world. For the first time Canada is in the top place, the result of the same kind of pandemic shakeup that shifted the Maclean’s ranking of cities.
The best place to live in the best country on the planet? That’s how outsiders see Halifax in 2021: the best city in the world. And this presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city to change its image and bring in new people, adding to the population growth, vitality and economic life of a place that was already on the upswing before the pandemic scrambled everything.
For decades, Halifax has been known as a charming but gritty port town, a good place for Ontario kids to get their undergrad and then head back to jobs in Upper Canada, a great place to live, if you can earn a living, which…good luck. It was a place for leaving, a sleepy college town with good music, architecture and nightlife, but not enough good jobs.
That was already beginning to turn around in recent years, the result of a growth strategy from three levels of government, boosting the population through immigration job-creation, mostly in high tech and skilled trades. After decades where the population was flat, and the province was losing its young people to employment opportunities west of Nova Scotia, beginning in 2016, Halifax has been growing. The city added 32,000 people in four years.
Mi’kmaq historian Dan Paul, who has lived in Halifax since 1961, says the city is almost unrecognizable now compared to when he arrived. He is happy to see a more diverse society around him.
“Let's put it this way. We accepted you, immigrants, all of you a long time ago, right? So I have no problem with it.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who can take credit for policies that helped turn the city around, says the Maclean’s ranking doesn't mean too much.
“The last time they did that, we were 131st and we were the highest-ranked community in Atlantic Canada. All these things go up and they go down. What matters to me is I see the hard statistics and I see that we're growing in population. People like it here. The kids are wanting to stay here. We’re talking to businesses all the time, coming here. That wasn't the case. We had to turn that around.”
It was going well before the pandemic led to an exodus from big cities around the world, boosting real estate prices in rural areas and smaller cities across North America. We don’t know yet how many people have moved to Halifax, but likely a lot. The labour force survey from StatsCan shows that 9,400 people entered the workforce from February 2020 to February 2021. And in April, chief medical officer of health Robert Strang said there had been a 400 percent increase in people crossing the border, before he shut it down to try to keep COVID out.
Haligonians didn’t need Maclean’s to tell them the city is hot. Real estate agents’ inboxes are full of offers from stressed-out Torontonians, who bid tens of thousands over asking on fixer uppers, sight-unseen, because they want to get out of their struggling city, and they have so much equity that Nova Scotia real estate is cheap. (That’s why Maclean’s can cites Halifax’s "affordable housing prices" with a straight face, even though this seems like a joke to locals facing the housing crisis.)
To manage the influx of people, and continue to grow, Halifax is going to have to take steps to make sure that it remains appealing. The kind of workers the city needs are not choosing between Port Hawkesbury and Halifax, like an earlier generation, but between Halifax and Portland, Oregon. They are mobile and in-demand, and if the city is going to succeed it needs to make their lives pleasant.
Halifax, with its jewel of a harbour and easy access to beaches and wilderness, is easy to sell, unless all the newcomers turn the city into a traffic nightmare. To prevent that, we need to reduce the number of cars. The influx of people from cities elsewhere may create a constituency for a more urban community, says environmentalist Susana Fuller.
“Are we ready to not have cars? It's very difficult because so many people in Nova Scotia move to the city from a rural environment and it never occurred to them that they wouldn't have a car. So I think if we have enough immigration from other urban areas into our urban area, then we can change that.” Fuller is thinking "on the environment, public transportation, bike lanes, walking, all that stuff, that will start to change.”
It had better change or Halifax will be a mess, says Waye Mason, the councillor for Halifax South Downtown.
“Even if we don't sprawl, we're going to be behind the eight ball. We're looking at being 550,000 people by 2030, and probably around 800,000 by 2050. And so we need to spend this money today to get the bus, rapid transit and the ferries and all that, or it’s going to be a very miserable place to live.”
Halifax Regional Council has approved a $780-million transit plan that would move people around in electric buses and on fast ferries to new terminals on the Bedford Basin. To pay for this, the city needs money from the province and Ottawa—provincial cooperation being required to unlock federal transit money.
“It is the fundamental cleavage in Nova Scotia politics. It’s Halifax versus everybody else. The way the seats are distributed, the rural areas get more seats than they deserve.”
But the province had been slow to open its wallet, probably due longstanding political tensions in Nova Scotia. Where outsiders might think Nova Scotia is blessed to be home to the world’s best city, inside the province Halifax earns disdain as the local version of Toronto, a self-satisfied place perfectly happy to accept more than its fair share of attention and resources. Particularly when that attention and funding is coming from government.
Mason believes the province dragged its feet on transit funding because the federal fund is earmarked for transit users, so most of it will go to the city, the only place in Nova Scotia where there is much public transit. "What it comes down to is they don't want to spend the money the way the feds want the money spent because the feds are allocating the money based on transit ridership,” Mason says.
In July, however, just before premier Iain Rankin’s election call, the transit plan received $122 million from the city, provincial and federal governments. Speaking generally of the plan, mayor Savage says "these are investments that are not only a good for Halifax, but really for the whole province and the region.”
It’s a good pitch, but Rankin wasn’t willing to stake his political future on the idea that spending in Halifax is a reliable way to help the rest of Nova Scotia. Buses for the city was a small noise in the explosion of funding announcements leading to the August 17 election, which ranged across the province from Yarmouth to Cape Breton.
Rankin represents the suburban Metro riding of Timberlea-Prospect, and seems more focused on urban issues than former premier Stephen McNeil, the MLA for Annapolis. Rankin’s more urban outlook could be good news for Halifax, unless there is political blowback from rural areas.
Savage says that may be a challenge for Rankin, just as it is within the HRM.
“I mean, you know, Dartmouth is jealous of what Halifax has. Halifax is jealous of what Dartmouth has. You know, the rural communities want more. That's a fact within Halifax as well. As long as there have been elections in Nova Scotia, there has always been this urban-rural reality.”
Rankin will have to convince rural Nova Scotians that he is going to act in their interest, says Graham Steele, who was finance minister in Darrell Dexter’s NDP government. Steele is the author of the new book Nova Scotia Politics 1945-2020: From Macdonald to MacNeil.
“It is the fundamental cleavage in Nova Scotia politics,” he says. “It’s Halifax versus everybody else. The way the seats are distributed, the rural areas get more seats than they deserve. So you're just not going to win government unless you stick it to Halifax.”
Steele, who studied every government since the Second World War while he was working on his book, says this anti-Halifax feeling is a permanent part of the political culture of the province.
“That kind of sentiment runs through every part of Nova Scotia politics. And that's why some of our more successful premiers have been people who've been able to straddle the two. They're actually city people, but they're able to make a reasonably convincing case that they understand the rural areas.”
Angus L. Macdonald, Robert Stanfield and John Buchanan, who all had long runs in the premier’s office, all represented urban ridings, but presented themselves as being rooted elsewhere.
Rankin, who has family roots in Mabou, and is related to the musical geniuses of the same surname, was up there two weeks after he became premier in February, handing $2 million to the Gaelic College for a satellite campus. Steele saw that as Rankin "polishing up his Cape Breton bona fides.”
Early in his tenure, Rankin also backtracked on a biodiversity bill that rankled some rural landowners after a forestry-industry-backed PR campaign suggested the government was going after them. Many rural voters are interested in paving roads, not transit.
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston may have an opportunity as the only party head whose riding is outside Halifax. Houston, who represents the riding of Pictou East, can argue that a Tory government would do a better job for rural Nova Scotians, especially when it comes to health care.
“The health care that people in Halifax get, the internet that people in Halifax get, the government services that people in Halifax get, are better, and have been over the course of the past eight years,” says a Tory strategist, speaking on condition that their name not be used. “And when you’re talking about health care …if you’re not focused on the things that affect us all, but also affect the rural areas a little worse….”
The NDP’s Gary Burrill, who first won a seat in the legislature representing Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley in 2009, is now running for Halifax Chebucto, so he has both urban and rural experience, but polls suggest he has failed to connect with voters.
Steele points out that history may be on Houston’s side.
“Generally speaking, Nova Scotians are very much willing to change leadership when the premiership change is just at a convention. If they like a leader, they'll stick with them, but they're quite willing to throw out somebody who just inherited the job. If you look at the historical precedents, this is a very good chance for Houston to come in.”
Paul, who has been watching Nova Scotia politics for a long time, says the precedent may be overturned this time.
“I think in this instance that may be upset,” he said. “Stephen McNeil did a bang-up job with the COVID thing and he got a lot of public support across the board. And Iain seems like he's following in those footsteps…he may be successful and win a mandate of his own.”
On the other hand, maybe not.
“Politics are fickle. You never know what's going to happen.”