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(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.