Grosse Ile: Illuminating the History of Immigration in Canada
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In 1832 Canada needed settlers, particularly for the western provinces, but cholera was raging through Europe and the British couldn't risk inadvertently bringing in a cholera epidemic. The intention was to take those who were ill or exposed and quarantine them until the ill could be cured.
Today there's a Celtic cross memorial with plaques on each of the four sides of the base. It was built in 1909 by the Hiberians who raised the money to the memory of their countryfolk. It's not without controversy -- the side in Celtic talks about people fleeing from an "artificial famine" created when Ireland was exporting food to England, even as its people starved. And it ends with God save Ireland. Plaques on the other sides remember the doctors and priests who also died during the typhus epidemic.
Tours of Grosse Ile, designated as a historical site in 1989, include a walk through part of the island. A narrated trolley tour goes through the village where the staff, carpenters, drivers, medical personnel, even priest and teacher lived and worked. Many building have been destroyed and others are in disrepair. Eventually the government hopes to restore them sufficiently for interior tours.
At the heart of the immigration portion is the disinfection building. Walking through the old wooden structure visitors use headphones piping in statements of men and women recreating their experiences, the voices of people in charge telling them what to do and how the disinfection will proceed. All this is keyed to the room being visited. As you walk from room to room the content changes automatically. The long cavernous building with shower cubicle after cubicle is especially powerful, as are the huge steam rooms where the clothes were disinfected.
Immigration was the heart of colonization of North America. It was the men, women, and children who left Europe who populated Canada (and the United States as well). Understanding their concerns, experiences, hopes and fears puts a human face on the develop of the country.
Oddly though, despite the sorrow and sadness, the visit to Grosse Ile provides a sense of the human drama and the best of us as human beings. People trying to find a better life, the valor and commitment of those trying to save them, and the people who have never forgotten them.
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