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Community rallies behind bid to preserve home of Nova Scotia's first Black doctor

HALIFAX — Prominent members of Nova Scotia's Black community are supporting a bid to protect the Halifax home and clinic of the late Clement Ligoure, the province's first Black doctor and an unsung hero of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
Peggy Cameron, from the non-profit Friends of Halifax Common, stands in front of a stately home that the group is seeking heritage designation to save it from demolition in Halifax on Thursday, January 19, 2023. The home was owned by Dr. Clement Ligoure, the first Black doctor in Nova Scotia, where Dr. Ligoure operated his clinic in the early 1900s—treating hundreds of people injured by the Halifax Explosion on Dec. 6, 1917. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

HALIFAX — Prominent members of Nova Scotia's Black community are supporting a bid to protect the Halifax home and clinic of the late Clement Ligoure, the province's first Black doctor and an unsung hero of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

Originally from Trinidad, Ligoure graduated in 1916 with a medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and he would later become editor of Nova Scotia's first Black newspaper, the Atlantic Advocate. He was also co-founder of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada's only all-Black unit to serve during the First World War.

"He was a leader in many fields and he had a lot of courage," said Peggy Cameron, director of the Friends of Halifax Common and the person who applied to have Ligoure's former home granted heritage status.

"He understood that he had a role as a leader in the Black community. He was outstanding on many levels — personally, professionally, locally and nationally."

The proposal to protect the house was filed last year and will be debated by regional council Tuesday, but Cameron says it's not a done deal. Members of the public will not be allowed to speak to council because the application did not come from the current homeowner, who happens to be a developer. Louis Lawen, head of Dexel Developments, could not be reached for comment.

"There's a lot of concern that the city is following the lead of developers," said Cameron, who has a master's degree in environmental studies and is vice-president of a renewable energy company.

"The public can't speak, but they can write letters."

Cameron's group has received letters of support from six prominent Black leaders including Sharon Brown Ross, a member of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

"The historical contributions of Dr. Ligoure are generally unknown by the public, including many Black African Nova Scotians," Brown Ross wrote in her letter, noting that the doctor's many successes came despite deeply embedded systemic racism at the turn of the century.

Two years after Ligoure graduated from Queen's, the university banned all Black students. He was also barred from entering the military when he moved to Halifax.

In her letter, Brown Ross says Ligoure was also denied hospital privileges when he arrived in the port city, which is why he established a private clinic in his home. The stately Queen Anne Revival style house, built in 1894, sits on North Street in the city's north end. It's now a rental property.

"Dr. Ligoure's efforts are exemplified during the 1917 Halifax Explosion in treating the injured in the city, which is an example ... of the lost history of Halifax," Brown Ross wrote.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a massive explosion levelled much of the city after a two wartime ships collided in the harbour, one of them laden with explosives. The blast killed almost 2,000 people and injured another 9,000 — many of them blinded by flying glass. 

On Jan. 25, 1918, Ligoure told the Halifax Disaster Record Office that his clinic was filled with injured people immediately after the explosion. "Very severe cases, jaws cut in, noses off," the file says. With only his housekeeper and a boarder to help him, Ligoure "worked steadily both night and day."

He treated hundreds of people, free of charge.

Brown Ross said council members should recall the "blemish in Canadian history" that resulted after the city's 1964 decision to bulldoze Africville, an African Nova Scotian community that was also in the city's north end.

The decision "was done to make way for urban renewal ... coupled with purposefully entrenching advantages of the well-connected and wealthy," Brown Ross wrote. "Please don't be coerced in repeating yet another historic erasure of a segment of Black African history in Halifax."

The city issued a formal apology to the former residents of Africville in 2010, but no compensation was offered.

Cameron says Ligoure's house remains at risk of demolition because the city is planning to widen nearby Robie Street. Since 2020, the regional municipality has issued 440 demolition permits, reflecting the fact that Halifax is now one of the fastest growing cities in Canada.

George Elliott Clarke, a former parliamentary poet laureate, also wrote a letter of support for Cameron, saying a heritage designation would help preserve a little-known but important part of Halifax's history.

"Late have we been to recognize the civic charity of Nova Scotia's first Black doctor — just as we have been slow to salute the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Nova Scotia-mustered No. 2 Construction Battalion that he helped to found," wrote Clarke, who grew up in Halifax and is now a professor at the University of Toronto.

"It would be a terrible irony were a survivor of the (Halifax Explosion) ... to have his residence and clinic destroyed a century later by 'development,' a process often ignorant of the past and over eager to exploit present 'opportunity,' without a care for posterity."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2023.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press