Disaster Canada by Leon J. Podles

Disaster Canada

One Canada Day found me in Canada, so I asked a Canadian whether an event, like the Declaration of Independence, was being celebrated, or just the general fact of Canadianness. The Canadian was puzzled and consulted with fellow Canadians, who agreed that July 1 had something to do with Confederation, although of what no one was quite sure.

Lacking exciting political events in their history, Canadians pride themselves on their disasters. When I landed in Halifax, the driver who took us into the city proudly pointed out the cemetery for Titanic victims and recommended a restaurant in the funeral home building that had received the corpses of Titanic victims. He also sketched the horrors of an explosion that occurred in 1917 when an ammunition ship caught fire in the harbor. Crowds rushed to the scene to watch the fire, ignoring the warnings of sailors to flee. The ship’s explosion was the biggest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. The water was blown out of the harbor and drowned those on shore who had not been killed by the blast. Thousands of houses were destroyed, many set on fire by overturned stoves, incinerating the trapped inhabitants. Flying glass shards blinded those who were looking out windows at the moment of the blast. The sound of the explosion was heard 200 kilometers away. A six-day blizzard compounded the suffering. In all, 2,000 people died, 9,000 were injured, and 25,000 were left homeless—out of a national population of 8,000,000. If the United States had suffered proportionally in September 2001, New York would have had 60,000 dead. Canada’s numbers are smaller, but the trauma has been greater.

I was therefore not surprised to come across, in a tourist book section, Disaster Canada, which recounts major Canadian catastrophes since the beginning of the nineteenth century. A fine catalog they make. The numbers of victims were not inconsiderable, especially when understood for their impact on a country so much less populous than the United States. In 1914, the passenger liner the Empress of Ireland was rammed in the fog by a Norwegian ship while it was still in the St. Lawrence River. Over 1,000 passengers died. In today’s United States the equivalent death toll would be 30,000.

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Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in Old English and Old Icelandic from the University of Virginia and is a senior editor of Touchstone. His latest book is Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity (St. Augustine's Press, 2020). He and his wife Mary (author of the Touchstone column "A Thousand Words") are the parents of six children. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

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