Photo: John Last
Photo: John Last

From the water, it looks like a Cubist attempt at a military bunker. It’s a squat, grey, roofless trapezoid, and an unassuming sight.

Yet, 20 years ago last month, seven of the world’s most powerful leaders opened Dartmouth’s World Peace Pavilion to the sounds of choirs and commendations from the people. They had all come to celebrate a humble collection of bricks and rocks.

The inscription on its surface — “Let your vision be world-embracing” — is exemplary of the hopeful, globalizing spirit that defined the 1990s. Opened for the 1995 G7 summit in Halifax, its origins are curiously linked to the financial optimism that ushered in the new millennium.

Underneath its chipper surface, however, are a dozen unspoken stories of conflict and compromise, brought together in this quiet rocky sanctuary.

Photo: John Last
Photo: John Last

There’s a clay brick, marked “Yugoslavia”, broken in three pieces, a reminder of the civil war that occupied Canadian peacekeepers and NATO soldiers for a decade.

The newly formed Republic of Slovakia sent a sign forged from resistance weapons used when it was last independent — as a Nazi satellite state.

From the US, a chunk of concrete from a former nuclear bunker, a polite reminder of their commitment to disarmament. (The last to contribute, they wanted to send a moon rock, because only the US has moon rocks. The organizers responded that this wasn’t quite the idea.)

A few feet away sits an equally polite reminder — a Cuban brick from the Bay of Pigs, the site of a foiled US invasion of Cuba.

When Rachel Farahbakhsh conceived of the monument in 1989, bringing these nations together in peace was not an altogether far-fetched concept. The fall of the Berlin Wall, a sizeable chunk of which sits in the pavilion, marked a potential end to decades of division and antagonism in Europe.

It was not the end of Communism, however, but the “oneness of humanity” preached by a 19th century Middle Eastern cleric, Bahá’u’lláh, that inspired Farahbakhsh. In 1989 she created Metro Youth for Global Unity, the pavilion’s founding group, to “explore the various prerequisites to World peace.”

Farahbakhsh and others in the group began writing to embassies in Canada, requesting “a rock from the earth we all share… [or] a brick for the ability to shape our future.”

In 1989, they received their first donation, a brick from Pakistan.

“Really, we had no credibility,” says Farahbakhsh. “The countries that contributed first were just [donating on] pure faith.”

A piece of the Berlin Wall is in the Dartmouth Peace Pavillion. Photo: john Last
A piece of the Berlin Wall is in the Worl Peace Pavillion. Photo: john Last
A piece of the Berlin Wall is in the Worl Peace Pavillion. Photo: john Last

The project gained legitimacy when Dartmouth mayor John Savage donated a prime piece of property in Ferry Terminal Park. Unable to fund the project further, and with some resistance remaining among the public, the organizers turned to provincial and federal governments for the necessary $445,000 to fund construction.

Then came the G7.

In 1994, the “Group of 7” leading industrial economies settled on Halifax as their next host city. After the ostentatious displays of Venice and Versailles, Prime Minister Jean Chretien famously declared it the “Chevrolet Summit,” to be defined by a new austerity.

But despite international terrorism, civil war in Yugoslavia and currency collapse all being on the agenda, they, too, arrived with optimism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had spread a sense of hope grounded in the view that “American capitalism won the Cold War,” according to Melvin Cross, an economist at Dalhousie University.

Official communiqués from the conference talk of bringing “democracy, market economy, stability, peace and prosperity” to the Eastern Bloc.

“There was optimism that… market economies would replace communism,” says Cross, “but there was very little recognition initially that capitalism had been built up in the west over a very long time.”

The Halifax Summit’s communiqués show the G7 nations belief that deregulation meant global prosperity, and global prosperity meant global peace. West and East could be brought together, if not by Bahá’u’lláh’s “oneness of humanity,” then by the oneness of capital.

Old diplomatic institutions like the United Nations, too slow to respond to recent currency crises, gave way to new financial creations, like the World Trade Organization, founded one year earlier and newly empowered at the summit.

In the archives, the World Peace Pavilion is inescapably associated with this world of financial experimentation. Even before it was built, hardly a newspaper article exists where updates on the Pavilion’s rapid construction were not placed alongside statements from leaders in the run-up to the summit.

Both Farahbakhsh and project architect Robert Parker acknowledge the project was only realized because of the G7’s arrival.

“[It] was the initiative for funding, fast tracking the project and getting the three levels of government to work toward its mission,” says Parker.

“They had to have the opening ceremony at something,” says Farahbakhsh. “We were waiting for the right moment, and this was it.”

Despite this association, there is something about the World Peace Pavilion that resists pollution by politics and commerce. Its construction does not lend itself to rallies — it’s too removed, too secluded. But neither would project leaders let it be commercialized, or turned into another tourist attraction for Halifax’s cruise ship arrivals.

“Peace is not a commercial commodity,” says Parker in an email. “The Pavilion is a sanctuary away from commercialization in all respects.”

The G7 funded the pavilion, but it never quite owned it.

“If [the G7] is what it took for this project to be acknowledged as a significant project, then we’re thankful,” says Farahbakhsh. “[We thought,] if this could contribute to the spirit of the G7 [by saying], look at what some youth had done, look at how it inspired many hundreds of diplomats to be involved, then that’s a positive thing.”

As optimism about the future of capitalism fades away, and Dartmouth intensifies its waterfront development, the World Peace Pavilion is becoming a literal sanctuary from a new climate of commercial speculation.

Shielded from harsh sun or strong harbour winds, adjacent to a spongy-floored playground and a row of evergreen trees, its harmless collection is a time capsule for the politics of old.

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  1. The pavilion was funded by the Government of Canada, Province of Nova Scotia and City of Dartmouth under the Federal Infrastructure Programme. The same programme gave Dartmouth a bingo hall at the Sportsplex although the Liberal government under Premier Savage called the expansion a ‘wellness centre’ and the bingo hall patrons were allowed to smoke in the hall for several years after construction.