Almost six months since it was thrust onto the national stage as the site of the Nova Scotia shooting spree, residents of the small town of Portapique are trying to rebuild, in a manner of speaking.
For more than 150 years, the Portapique Community Hall has been tucked away in the trees off Highway 2.
The small white building once shared the property with a church, and now stands alone in front of a cemetery with headstones dating back to the mid-1800s.
Lately, it’s been rented for the occasional fitness class, or family gathering. Generations of locals have tried to maintain the building with limited public funds.
Andrew MacDonald lived in Portapique for nearly two years before he even knew the hall existed.
But for the last six months, the hall has become a focal point for MacDonald and others who lived through the horrific events of April 18 and 19.
The worst killing spree in Canada’s modern history began on the quiet streets of Portapique. Thirteen of the 22 victims were locals. People living in the area are dealing with the trauma of that weekend. Many are also coping with the loss of a sense of safety and community identity.
The Rotary Club of Truro started discussing ways to support Portapique back in April. As a club member, MacDonald has led efforts to determine what his community needs.
“I didn’t know a lot of the people that died in the shooting, unfortunately,” MacDonald said. “So we were really looking for ways to build that sense of community so that we could get to know each other, and know each other better.”
Throughout the summer, he held physically distanced, sit-down meetings with neighbours in an effort to understand what they wanted for the area.
The result is a “community build-up,” a project that will see neighbours work together to make the hall and surrounding property a gathering place.
It will include a playground, a picnic area, sports fields and gardens. Ultimately it will be a place to come together, especially for families.
“The kids and the young families are the key, they’re the next generation that’s going to go through and stay in Portapique,” MacDonald said.
“So for the longevity of this hall actually being used, it’s important that the kids get involved and that there’s stuff here for kids.”
The Rotary Club of Truro has helped facilitate the project.
“Watching what Andrew and the committee, and the residents here have been able to do has been awe-inspiring,” said Alana Hirtle, the chair of the Rotary Club of Truro’s Rotary Cares Committee.
“It truly is a show of strength and resilience and compassion and community spirit.”
MacDonald says the aim is to create a positive, forward-looking sense of community. But it’s one that many hope will also include a nod to the past.
“As we got talking, there were all sorts of conversations about the Portapique Dance Hall from years back,” Hirtle said.
The dance hall used to be located at the end of Portapique Beach Road, but the Bay of Fundy tides eroded the land away and the hall is no more.
“Everybody in this area talks about being at a dance where they either had a lot of fun and got drunk, or had a lot of fun and were in a fight, or both,” Hirtle said, laughing. “So people wanted to recreate that feeling, that vibe.”
Eventually, the group wants to expand the hall, making it fully accessible and adding a commercial kitchen so it can be rented for events like conventions, weddings, or dances.
Work has already begun. A launch event in late September saw about 25 people get together to clean up tree branches from the yard, and pull three layers of wood panelling from the walls inside.
The next step is fundraising the $500,000 needed to make the goal a reality. The Community Foundation of Nova Scotia is already collecting donations for the “We Rise Again Fund.”
“Our hope is that through the We Rise Again Fund the community of Portapique and the surrounding areas, the people who live here and the people who visit here feel that this is a place that they are comfortable and they are safe,” said Daniel Holland, Community Foundation of Nova Scotia CEO.
The group is also looking for in-kind donations of building supplies, paint, windows and doors, and landscaping materials. A heat pump and water heater have already been donated.
“For any businesses that have an interest in donating something to Portapique, certainly your business will have something that the hall needs, just reach out,” MacDonald said.
For Nova Scotians, it’s a chance to reach out and support a community that’s lost so much.