The saddest place in Canada

By Mitchell Smyth

Meridian Writers’ Group

GROSSE ÎLE, Québec—Row after row of white crosses mark the saddest place in Canada, a cemetery on this island in the St. Lawrence estuary downstream from Quebec City.

Melancholy seems to ooze from the hard soil for this is the burial place of thousands of dreams... the dreams of a people escaping starvation and eviction. In one year alone, more than 5,000 men, women and children died on this island.

Today the island is a National Historic Site, with memorials to the thousands of emigrants, mostly Irish, who died here. And a museum tells the whole tragic story.

Epidemics such as typhus and cholera, which ravaged Europe, were brought to North America on the emigrant ships in the early 19th century. Quebec City was the gateway to Canada — and for many bound for the United States, too — and to stop the spread of disease the colonial authorities established Grosse Île as a quarantine station where emigrants would be examined before landing. That was in 1832.

Its biggest test came in 1847 during the Great Famine in Ireland. Ninety thousand emigrants poured in that summer; six out of seven of them came in the “coffin ships” — so-called because thousands died on the way — from Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast.

In the famine years of 1845-1849, the Grosse Île record shows, 7,556 people died here, 5,424 in the year 1847 alone, when the ships brought an unwanted passenger: typhus. Their names are engraved on a Plexiglas wall of an outdoor memorial near what is still called “the Irish Cemetery,” in the western corner of the island. Eight of the 11 panels in the wall record the grim toll from ’47.

The island was overwhelmed by the massive human cargo that summer. Ships queued up for kilometres to land the healthy, the sick and the dying, and the disinfection units and the hospitals bulged at the seams.

Grosse Île was in use as a quarantine station for 105 years, until 1937, by which time medical advances had made it obsolete. Later it was a government agricultural research station, then in the 1980s it became a National Historic Site, called the Irish Memorial.

Today visitors tour about 30 buildings, such as the disinfection quarters, the three “hotels” where healthy passengers stayed until they got clearance to proceed, the Anglican and Catholic chapels, and the lazaretto (quarantine hospital). Park rangers give guided tours and a trolley takes visitors around the site.


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