Posted by: Hannah | 11/16/2011

the gift

Canadian readers will know the background of this story, thanks to the always-awesome Canadian Heritage Minute featuring the brave and selfless “Vince Coleman, Dispatcher” (SFW, have tissues nearby, though):

On December 6, 1917, the French cargo ship Mont Blanc suffered an accidental collision with the Norwegian ship IMO while both navigated Halifax Harbour. A fire broke out on board Mont Blanc; dozens of residents lined up along the harbourfront to watch. A half hour later, the Mont Blanc, loaded with wartime munitions, exploded with fierce intensity. It remains the world’s largest accidental man-made explosion.

The entire waterfront to a distance of nearly 2km was destroyed. The concussion from the blast was heard in the two neighbouring provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The blast triggered a tsunami in the harbour that dragged many of the watching townspeople to their deaths. Debris from the blast landed several miles away.

As the video says, 9000 were wounded and 2000 were killed. Large sections of the city had to be rebuilt; one of our most beautiful neighbourhoods, the Hydrostone, is a direct result of efforts to replace some 12,000 homes that were lost.

Each year on the anniversary of the Explosion, a memorial service is held in the city’s north end.


That’s the back story. Now for the gift.


As word of the disaster spread, help started to arrive from around the Maritimes. All assistance had to come by train; it was a hard winter with freezing temperatures and heavy snow, and communications were severely disrupted. To make matters worse, a blizzard rolled into town on December 7th; many of the wounded died as a result of the freezing temperatures and lack of shelter. The city’s doctors and nurses had been working in adverse conditions without rest. Supplies were running low.

In Boston, Massachusetts, a supply train loaded with medical professionals, supplies, tents, and food set out late at night on the day of the explosion. By all accounts the trip was terrible; they were often delayed by deep snow on the tracks and no one was quite sure what they would find when they arrived.

That train and the personnel on board saved many lives.

In 1971, it was decided that Nova Scotia should make a formal gesture to acknowledge and thank the people of Boston for their help during that difficult time. I have no idea who came up the idea, but the province decided to send a large Christmas tree to the city. Department of Natural Resources staff were given the basic parameters for the kind of tree they wanted, and kept their eyes open, looking for the right one.

Forty years later, we still send a native Nova Scotia tree to Boston every year.

The tree shipped out today. It was donated by a family from Yarmouth County.


I have always loved this story. It’s a simple gesture but it clearly resonates. And while it is still a wee bit too early to be thinking too much about Christmas, I thought this was an appropriate way to ease into the holiday season. And remind us all that sometimes it is the small gestures that mean the most, as we start getting stressed out about gifts and wrapping and visits from relatives.



  1. I love the story, too. It always makes me a little teary.

  2. I love that story too. Such a beautiful gesture. And I love that we still do it.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. “…including Vince Coleman, dispatcher.”


    Gets me every time.

  4. All I can think about now is “burnt toast”.

    Somehow I doubt that was the point here. :p

  5. I didn’t realise it wasn’t until 1971 that we started sending trees. But I so love the gesture, and the story always gets to me, too.

  6. I like that story too.

    Do you know if the 1971 decision was prompted by the Norwegian gift following WW2?


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