Ceremony in Halifax marks 1st navy vessel named for Black Canadian

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William Hall of Hantsport, N.S., was the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian and the third Canadian to be honoured with the Victoria Cross.
William Hall of Hantsport, N.S., was the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian and the third Canadian to be honoured with the Victoria Cross.

(CBC - image credit)

African Heritage Month was marked by a special ceremony Wednesday at the Irving Shipyard in Halifax as the keel was officially laid for the first Canadian naval vessel to be named after a Black person.

The fourth Arctic offshore patrol ship will bear the name of William Hall, who was also the first Black person to win the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Relief of Lucknow in 1857.

One of Hall's descendents, Canadian Army Sgt. Phillip Safire, gave an impassioned speech about the meaning of the dedication.

He reminded an audience of dignitaries and shipyard workers that until 1943, Hall would not have been allowed to serve in the Canadian navy because of his race.

Paul Withers/CBC
Paul Withers/CBC

"It is important that all Canadians know about the HMCS William Hall. It represents the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Armed Forces that have come to value diversity and inclusion," Safire said.

"Knowing and seeing a Canadian naval vessel bearing the name of a Black Nova Scotian, a Black Canadian and a Black naval hero will allow those Blacks and other minorities throughout Canada to feel maybe there is a place for them within our ranks."

Hall, the son of American slaves, received the Victoria Cross when he helped lift a siege in India more than 160 years ago while serving in the Royal Navy.

The Hantsport man was the first Nova Scotian and the third Canadian to receive the bravery award.

Paul Withers/CBC
Paul Withers/CBC

On Wednesday, the navy tradition of inserting a coin in the keel took place following the speeches. It was welded to the hull by two participants in the Pathways to Shipbuilding program created to help minorities launch their careers in the industry.

"It has a personal meaning to me because I am actually from Hantsport, so it's an honour to be welding the coin to the keel," said Macey Rolfe, one of the welders.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that program. It helped me build a lot of confidence. I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years and I needed a career. So it pointed me in an excellent direction and I wouldn't turn back."

Paul Withers/CBC
Paul Withers/CBC

The ceremony also marked the first public event for Kevin Mooney, the new president of the Irving Shipyard. He took over this month from Kevin McCoy, who had led the yard since 2013.

Mooney confirmed first steel will be cut in 2024 on construction of much larger, more complex and more expensive surface warships for the navy, with the first warship to be delivered in the early 2030s.

"That is very typical for a ship of this size and complexity," he told reporters. "You would see the same timeline if you were in the United States, if you were in the United Kingdom, Australia."

Mooney also expressed confidence that the combatant surface vessel program, as the warships are called, will survive a pending review of the program by the parliamentary budget officer.

"I don't anticipate any long-term impacts from the report because I believe when we get the results of the report and are able to have a good discussion about them, I think the value of the program will be made very clear to everyone in Canada, and I expect the program to continue as planned," he said.

Mooney said he does not expect layoffs as the yard transitions from building the Arctic offshore patrol ships to combat vessels.

"It's a very important part of our strategy to not have any layoffs," he said. "We cannot afford to let a single skilled shipbuilder be laid off. We have to have continuous employment."

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