Archive | Canadian History RSS feed for this section

(Re-)Living History on Grosse Ile

28 Aug

When we got off of the boat at Grosse Ile, attendants quickly led us into the disinfection building right by the docks on the western end of the island.

Soon enough, we were undergoing physical inspections – of our tongues, our fingernails, our skin. Looming over us and dominating the room was the giant steam-powered disinfection machine, state-of-the-art when first installed, into which all visitors to the island were required to place their worldly possessions. For most, that meant a beat-up old bag or two.

Before too long, we were led upstairs to the shower room, also state-of-the-art at some point in its history, where each metallic stall was equipped with rows of curved horizontal pipes that would surround its occupants and spray water from all directions to ensure a thorough cleaning. For many visitors to the island, this mandatory disinfecting wash would have been the first shower of their lives.

The disinfecting steam machines and horizontal showers aren’t operational anymore, and the tongue inspections were just a bit of theatre. These days, visitors to Grosse Ile arrive with cameras and boxed lunches and stay for only a few hours. Past visitors would often arrive with cholera, typhus or smallpox and would stay for months at a time, if they ever left the island at all.

In fact, any sign of disease would get visitors shipped to the east sector of the island – the “sick side”. Many of them would die there. Those lucky enough to recover would get the coveted official papers they required to set foot anywhere else in Canada.

When it was in operation as a quarantine station for more than one hundred years until just before the Second World War, this small island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River north of Quebec City served as the first point of landing for most immigrants to our country. Possibly some of your own ancestors spent time on Grosse Ile before sailing on to new lives in places south and west of there.

Of course, in all its years operating as a quarantine station, no year brought as much tragedy to Grosse Ile as 1847, when thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine fell victim to a typhus epidemic that swept through the island. This was a number of decades before technological and medical advances led to the disinfection and quarantine processes described above.

A mass grave not too far from the landing docks hosts the remains of the 5,424 victims who died that long-ago summer, the wavy appearance of the ground bearing evidence of piles of stacked coffins underneath.

More than two-thirds of all the visitors to Grosse Ile who ever died there over the course of a century perished that summer. When you approach the island by boat, the first thing you see is a stark, giant monument in the shape of a celtic cross – the largest in North America – that pays tribute to their memory.

A smaller monument – a plaque inside an old Anglican church on the island – is similarly moving. It reads:

“In memoriam of the thousands of persons of many races and creeds who, victims of pestilence, lie buried in nameless graves on this Island”.

I knew a little bit about Grosse Ile and its history before I visited there in person this past summer. But nothing teaches the history of a place as effectively as stepping foot in that place and walking in the footsteps of those who were there before.

Especially a place with as much historical resonance as Grosse Ile to a country made up of so many descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The Grosse Ile site is now operated by Parks Canada, and in my experience, there is no better guardian of its legacy than that agency. Last year, my family bought an annual pass that allowed unlimited access to all of the national parks and historic sites operated by Parks Canada. We visited as many as we could on trips in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Every experience was worthwhile, and the history and natural wonders of each place we visited – from battlesites to unique geological phenomena – were presented in fascinating and memorable ways.

Parks Canada’s mandate is to “… protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment … for present and future generations.”

It’s been doing so for 100 years. I hope it continues to do so for centuries to come.

Political Barricades to Political Welcome Mats

11 Apr

I’ve recently written in this corner that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could come down to the choices of voters in a couple of dozen ridings with large ethnic minority populations.

The political parties have devoted a disproportionate amount of their leaders’ time – and of their campaigns’ resources – to wooing the so-called “ethnic vote”.

The Conservative Party in particular has spent a number of years trying to engage with immigrant and minority communities in an attempt to reverse the Liberal Party’s generations-long hold on their votes. Conservatives argue that their values most closely match those of members of those communities. Liberals disagree and accuse the Conservatives of pandering for votes.

In the end, the relative success of the parties in winning the support of such voters could very well be the critical factor that determines the shape of the next government.

If members of Canada’s political class today demonstrate common cause with minority communities, recruit minority candidates, and make strong public pitches for the support of minority voters, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case in this country.

It wasn’t too many years ago – in the lifetimes of many Canadians – that overt racism and anti-Semitism were not only part of the culture, but also a reality of political life.

An episode of a recent critically acclaimed documentary series by Ottawa journalist Holly Doan shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by Canadian minority groups, particularly Jews, in the decade following the Second World War. Of particular note is the way that discrimination extended into the corridors of power.

Doan’s work, called “The Fifties”, is a sweeping nine-part series covering many different stories about a decade that transformed Canada. The series debuted last month on CPAC – the Cable Public Access Channel – and is now viewable in its entirety on the cpac.ca website. (Full disclosure: I produce a program for CPAC, although I was not involved in any way with the documentary in question).

In an episode of the series called “One Canada”, Doan introduces us to dubious characters such as Solon Low, the MP from Peace River Alberta, who led the Social Credit Party in the House of Commons from 1944 until 1958. Low believed that Jews were not only behind Communism, but also that they funded Adolf Hitler. One Social Credit MP of the era spoke of world dictatorship and “Zionist control of the press and radio” in a House of Commons debate. The party was charged with using Parliamentary mail to distribute anti-Semitic literature.

Although the Socreds were never a major force in national politics, the documentary shows how the attitudes of the era – a time when many properties and jobs were limited to white Christians – were reflected in the way governments operated.

A former journalist recalls how Jewish members of the Ontario legislature sat as independents because “parties didn’t want them.” On Parliament Hill, Jewish MPs had been elected to the House of Commons since 1871, but eight decades later, no Canadian Prime Minister had ever appointed a Jew into cabinet or to the Senate.

Liberal PM Louis St-Laurent finally made longtime Toronto MP David Croll the first Jewish senator in 1955. But the documentary makes clear that appointment only came about because St-Laurent – a man who publicly condemned bigotry – did not have the political courage to face down anti-Semites in his party and bring the talented and popular Croll into his cabinet. On top of a decade of experience as a backbench MP, Croll also had been a successful mayor in Windsor and a provincial cabinet minister. It was only his Jewish heritage that kept him out of federal cabinet.

Canada wouldn’t have its first Jewish cabinet minister until 1969, when Pierre Trudeau made Herb Gray a minister without portfolio. Interviewed in the documentary, Gray puts his accomplishment into historical perspective:

“I’m not saying there weren’t others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me to have that distinction (as the first Jewish cabinet minister).”

The hero of the “One Canada” episode of “The Fifties” is John Diefenbaker, the longtime civil liberties advocate who became Prime Minister in 1957, and introduced the first Canadian Bill of Rights three years later. Historian Desmond Morton says Diefenbaker’s bill helped make “all those hatreds that this country had in its belly… unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing.”

Only a few decades down the road, political barricades have turned into political welcome mats. It’s a history worth contemplating this election season.