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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 22 August 2008, page R13
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Survivor of Halifax explosion became outspoken deputy minister


Canadian Press; Globe and Mail archives

August 22, 2008

HALIFAX -- Wilf Creighton was barely a teenager in 1917 when a munitions ship exploded after colliding with another vessel in Halifax harbour, causing devastating destruction. The sights of a city in ruins, the smell of burning flesh and the loss of six family members stayed with him for more than nine decades.

He went on to become a forester, passionate environmentalist and woodlot owner who served as the deputy minister for the Nova Scotia Lands and Forests Department.

He was the youngest of six children of Graham Creighton, an administrator and teacher at Dalhousie University, and grew up on LeMarchant Street in a house that backed onto the campus. On Dec. 6, 1917, he was upstairs cramming for a Grade 8 geography test when the explosion occurred.

It was a Thursday, and he would have been in class already if it had been May or September. But school went in at 9:30 a.m. in the winter, half an hour later than usual.

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He remembered it as a glorious day. Clear, slightly below freezing and just enough snow so that everything was white. Wilfrid, textbook propped on his lap, suspected nothing. Neither did about 65,000 other Haligonians. They had no idea they were about to witness what was later described as hell on Earth, a catastrophe that brought home the First World War.

Several kilometres away, the SS Mont Blanc was on its way to join a convoy bound for Europe. The ship was loaded with munitions. Coming in the other direction was the Imo, a neutral Norwegian vessel running relief missions to Belgium. At 8:40 a.m., the two ships collided in a shower of sparks. When they separated, the Mont Blanc burst into flames and its crew abandoned ship. Several minutes later, the Mont Blanc exploded, transforming into a lethal shower of twisted, molten metal. The blast shattered windows 100 kilometres away in Truro, N.S., and the rumble was felt in Charlottetown.

Officially, 1,639 people died, although many historians now say the death toll was closer to 2,000. Nine thousand people were injured; about 200 were blinded by flying glass and metal.

To say the least, the enormous blast ended young Wilf's attempts to study. "All of a sudden the house began to shake," he told the CBC in an interview last year. "Then it seemed to get dark and there was a terrible crash, and the doors and windows came flying in."

He ran downstairs to find the front doors gone but his parents safe. All the houses in his neighbourhood around the university were punched full of holes.

"You could hear the horses running and the drivers yelling," he once recalled. "There was a great white plume of smoke."

The next day, Wilf and a cousin went to explore the devastation. The scene was beyond belief. The hillside was littered with scraps of metal. Dead horses lay everywhere. Buildings still smouldered and inside the ruins, rescuers found bodies, some stripped naked by the force of the blast and some left headless.

He never forgot the catastrophe, said his daughter, Beth McGee. Each December, a pall fell over him and remained until the new year.

Still, her father wasn't stuck in the past, she said. Instead, he kept one eye to the future, no matter what he was doing. "Dad looked at life as a cup full to over-brimming."

He got on with living and, nine years after the explosion, became the last of his siblings to graduate from Dalhousie University. He then attended the University of New Brunswick to study forestry. He continued those studies in Germany until he returned home in 1934, bringing many new ideas with him.

In 1948, he took on the role of deputy minister for what was then known as the Nova Scotia Lands and Forests Department. He stayed until 1969, working under seven ministers.

Don Cameron, a forester with the Natural Resources Department, said Mr. Creighton "implemented programs and set up things here that were way ahead of their time."

Many of those innovations are still in place, he said. "You can imagine, during that time, the politics were very strong. Usually, when a government changed hands, at least half of the people within a department were fired. He survived that because he was so valuable. He didn't pull any punches. He was not afraid to speak his mind and people valued that."

Mr. Cameron said Mr. Creighton was committed to the idea of forest sustainability and would speak to other woodlot owners about how it could and should be done. In his role as deputy minister, he made profound differences - including a forest fire-protection system with lookout towers that continue to be staffed each summer. He also pushed the government to establish game sanctuaries and buy huge tracts of privately owned land.

Mr. Creighton served as the president of the Canadian Institute of Forestry and was an active member of the organization for more than 75 years.

Mr. Cameron said his friend was never afraid to step up to a podium, take the microphone or answer questions. As recently as three years ago, he blasted the provincial government in an article in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. "The forests are being raped," he said. "The government appoints deputy ministers who don't know anything about the woods. You have these big clear cuts and the Crown lands are not being properly managed."

In May, he spoke at a University of New Brunswick conference to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its forestry program, and earlier this summer, he accompanied his daughter and others to a meeting with provincial Environment Minister Mark Parent to push for the protection of a block of land on the Chebucto Peninsula.

Mr. Creighton received many honours over the years, including honorary doctorate degrees from both UNB and Dalhousie.


Wilf Creighton was born May 5, 1904, in Halifax. He died Aug. 22, 2008, at home in Halifax after suffering a fall. He was 104. He is survived by daughter Beth McGee and son Hugh Creighton. He also leaves three grandchildren and a great-grandson. He was predeceased by his wife, Helen, and by son Bob.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. Andrew's United Church on Robie Street in Halifax.