The history of immigration to Canada told at Grosse Ile, Quebec  http://www.offbeattravel.com/grosse-ile-canada.html

Grosse Ile: Illuminating the History of Immigration in Canada

At first look, Grosse Ile (which means large island) could be a bucolic retreat. It has an air of tranquility with blue waves lapping at the edges of the island, and walking paths up and down the hills. But Grosse Ile is far more. It is part memorial and part fascinating exhibit about the process of immigration. It opened in 1832 as an immigration station and closed in 1937. Although the island was used for other purposes it is the over 100 years as an immigration and quarantine station that is the focus of the sad yet fascinating history.

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At first look, Grosse Ile (which means large island) could be a bucolic retreat. It has an air of tranquility with blue waves lapping at the edges of the island, and walking paths up and down the hills. But Grosse Ile is far more. It is part memorial and part fascinating exhibit about the process of immigration. It opened in 1832 as an immigration station and closed in 1937. Although the island was used for other purposes it is the over 100 years as an immigration and quarantine station that is the focus of the sad yet fascinating history.

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.

The history of immigration to Canada told at Grosse Ile, Quebec  http://www.offbeattravel.com/grosse-ile-canada.html
But the problem of cholera was nothing compared to the swath of death that was to come. During the years of the Potato Famine, 1845 to 1870 Irish immigrants flocked to Quebec -- the trip from Liverpool to Quebec was cheaper than Liverpool to New York. Escaping the famine to Quebec however, didn't enable them to escape from typhus -- typhoid fever followed them across the ocean and in the months of May to October, 1847 5,524 men, women and children died. It became known as Black '47.

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.

The history of immigration to Canada told at Grosse Ile, Quebec  http://www.offbeattravel.com/grosse-ile-canada.html
By the early 1900s, medicine had advanced. Hotels were constructed on the island so that people who were not ill could stay and wait while family went through quarantine and treatment. Small pox vaccines were given to those who were healthy and treatment in the hospital for those who were not. The island had a first class hotel as well as a second and third class accommodations. Although none are currently open, plans are being made to restore the first-class hotel as part of the tour.

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.

Read more about travel in Quebec and throughout Canada

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 29, 2016



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