News / Halifax

Halifax Heroes: Decades of work protecting McNabs Island as harbour jewel

The head of the Friends of McNabs Society has researched, lobbied, raised awareness and filled hundreds of garbage bags over the years.

Catherine McCarthy, president of The Friends of McNabs Island Society, at Maugers Beach on the island.

Spencer Osberg/For Metro / Metro Web Upload

Catherine McCarthy, president of The Friends of McNabs Island Society, at Maugers Beach on the island.

For Catherine McCarthy there is no jewel more beautiful than the one that sits at the mouth of Halifax Harbour.

“I fell in love with McNabs Island when I saw those Victorian gardens all those years ago,” said McCarthy, recalling the first time she visited the island in the 1980s. The Victorian gardens she saw had been planted in the later half of the 1800s, and according to lore once rivaled the Halifax Public Gardens in splendor.  

Since the 1930s, however, the gardens on McNabs had been left untended and nature has overgrown them.

“I thought, ‘oh my God, this is such an amazing place that’s just been sitting here unmanaged and unkept all these years.’ It’s kind of lost in time,” said McCarthy, who holds a degree in horticulture from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and is an avid gardener.

The foundations of the old Hugonin-Perrin estate house, around which the garden was built, are still visible today. From where the doorway once was, one can still look out over the terraced gardens, with Japanese maples and linden trees framing a majestic view of Halifax harbour.

The Friends of McNabs Society, of which McCarthy is president, have documented and mapped out the locations of some 150 introduced species of perennial flowers, shrubs and trees that have survived in the Victorian gardens. These include tawny day lilies, lupine, lilac and black locust, while in the orchards of the lower gardens’ apple and cherry trees still bear fruit.

McCarthy said after she saw all this – and everything else McNabs Island has to offer – it left her feeling like “it was a place where I wanted to be involved to protect it.”

Her chance came in 1990 when the initial site for Halifax harbour sewage treatment plant was proposed for Ives Cove on the island’s northern tip. John Jenkins, who then ran the McNabs Island ferry, rallied members of the local community to stop the development, with McCarthy among the more than 50 people who showed up at the first meeting of the Friends of McNabs.

The society’s lobbying, and the $500-million cost of building on the island, helped relocate the sewage treatment plant proposal to the mainland. Once formed, however, the Friends of McNabs continued working.

“Nova Scotia is supposed to be ‘Canada’s Ocean Playground’, but the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t have the budget to take care of any of the provincial parks,” said McCarthy, adding that over the last decade alone the Friends of McNabs, a registered non-profit charity, has raised $500,000 in grants and donations to carry out projects.

These efforts have included everything from restoring the Victorian garden to maintaining trails across the island, as well as organizing shoreline cleanups each year during which they regularly fill over 400 garbage bags.

In 2002 the society’s lobbying then helped get McNabs officially designate as a provincial park. A year later, after Hurricane Juan roared up the harbour and blew down roughly 40 percent of the trees on the island, the Friends of McNabs kicked recovery efforts into high gear.   

In all this work, a primary focus of McCarthy’s and the Friends of McNabs has been increasing public access to the island. This has included giving guided tours to a wide assortment of groups, from junior high classes, to bird watchers on day trips from visiting cruise ships, to photographers from the Nova Scotia Community College.

The society has also meticulously researched the island’s history, through its time as British military battery, a French fishing outpost, and the site to where, in the mid-1700s, the governing authorities banished Mi’kmaq in the area following a raid on Dartmouth.

The Friends of McNabs also helped document the sites of mass graves where some 200 cholera victims were buried following their arrival by ship in the 1866. A century and half later, the society has helped the descendants of these victims, arriving from Europe, see these locations and learn more about what happened.   

“People, young and old, learn something new every time they go over to McNabs,” said McCarthy, “about the history of Nova Scotia and the history of Canada.”

More on