(This column was published in the North Shore News on July 26, 2000)


East Coast tall ship party a lout-free zone

By Leo Knight

HALIFAX -- Along with a couple of hundred thousand other people, I passed a pleasant Saturday night gazing upon a fireworks display framed by the majestic masts, spars and stays of one of a hundred tall ships in Halifax harbour.  


But, one of the things that struck me, given a long experience with the festival-ruining lager louts permeating Vancouver, was the absence of problems in the midst of a very serious party. Sure, there was a significant police presence, but it was more of a jovial, yet almost bored presence. This is noticeably different than the coiled spring intensity adopted by Vancouver area police any time there is a large gathering of people for an event.  


Look at North Van's Hose & Reel festival where drunks and foul-mouthed idiots abound and the RCMP tend to police the entrance gate rather than risk starting a full-scale riot by trying to actually deal with the ignorant drunks who annually ruin what should be a fun family day. Truth be told, a senior Mountie told me many of the younger officers are too afraid to wade into the drunken debauchery.  


At Tall Ships 2000, the waterfront boardwalks and piers were teeming with humanity from all over the world, with a stroll of a mere hundred paces yielding at least half a dozen different languages overheard in passing. The beer gardens were overflowing with merry-makers amidst the cacophony of music emanating from sound systems, buskers and paid bands from around the world.  


Waterfront pubs were jammed and the pints flowed as though the taps were never closed. Perspiring bartenders looked like whirling dervishes vainly trying to keep up with the demand of a 10-deep gathering in front of them. The Fife & Drum pub actually ran out of the most popular local brew, Alexander Keith's, with more than four hours of tippling left for the thirsty crowd.  


The Split Crow, a fashionable downtown pub on a pedestrian mall, spilled through its doors onto the cobblestones out front, turning a good portion of the street into de facto pub space as well. Management simply threw open the doors and windows to let the band's music spill out with the patrons.  


And the police just kept a calm eye on the spirited, yet peaceful proceedings.  


Add to the organized chaos, several hundred private boats jockeying for fireworks viewing position in the harbour. Yet, as opposed to the annual English Bay Symphony of Fire example, Staff Sergeant Larry Bowden of the ports division of Halifax Regional Police actually commended the boaters publicly for their exemplary behaviour.  


There were no collisions, not even minor ones. Police conducted literally hundreds of spot checks on vessels and not a single charge of drinking and boating was laid. Not one.  


On the first night of the Tall Ships 2000 festival, there were a couple of stabbings, a vicious beating with a pipe and a shooting death that bore all the hallmarks of an execution. But none of this urban insanity was connected to the festival. It all was, I suppose needless to say, related to drugs and took place in the city's north end, about 10 or so blocks from the party.  


It turns out the shooting victim and at least one of the identified stabbing victims were crack cocaine dealers, demonstrating that no city is immune to the urban blight proliferating cities across this country. While the area is predominantly black -- a racial ghetto made possible when city fathers forced the closure of "Africville" (sic) in the mid-1970s and moved the residents to the area where the violence occurred -- race relations in the city are remarkably good, also in contrast to Vancouver.  


A few days before the arrival of the tall ships, I had the privilege of attending a mixed-race wedding in the area. The small Baptist church, replete with gospel music, was decorated with plaques and other memorials to community leaders from the past.  


While the ushers had no need to ask guests the usual "friends of the bride or groom" question, simple observation providing the answer, the mood was celebratory and lacking any negative racial overtones.  


The reception proved even more pleasing. Guests were deliberately seated randomly, ensuring social and indeed, racial integration, making friends of strangers. Through conversation, I was able to understand this was the norm in a city where the perception elsewhere is one of racial disharmony.  


One of the more amusing events of the week, and, certainly, one which also showed the differences between Halifax and Vancouver, came from the small, yet vocal protest organized by Amnesty International. They stood alongside the Chilean tall ship Esmeralda, railing about alleged torture they claim occurred on board during the tumultuous reign of the despicable General Augusto Pinochet.  


Instead of drawing positive attention to their dubious cause, they got heckled by local and tourist alike. Evidently, the fact that the ship is an inanimate object and all but three of the crew had not even been born during the Pinochet years was lost on the feisty, if ill-advised little group.  


While we all take pride in the beauty of our fair city, we seem somehow incapable of acting as civilized as our East Coast cousins. What used to be a two-week showcase of Vancouver, the Sea Festival, has been reduced to the four nights of the Symphony of Fire, largely because of the antics of the ubiquitous crowd of idiots.  


We boast of being a world-class city and can't even host a New Year's party in public when cities across the country, and indeed, around the world, partied in the year 2000 with abandon.  


In Halifax, the last of the tall ships will have barely cleared McNab's Island when the annual Busker Festival will draw thousands more to the bustling waterfront.  


Evidently, we need often go elsewhere to see what we are missing.  






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