Here comes my second HISTORY post for Québec City! A few Saturdays ago, I visited Grosse-Île-et-le-Mémorial-des-Irlandais, a little island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. I learned a lot.
To get to the island, we took a bus to a nearby town, then hopped onto a boat!
Grosse-Île was the landing pad for most immigrants arriving to Canada from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Since there were so many crazy diseases in Europe (Typhus! Smallpox! Dysentery!), Grosse-Île was a quarantine station for immigrants before they continued on to the rest of Canada or the United States. The fact that Grosse-Île is an island definitely helped with this – if sick people tried to escape, they most likely died, and if they didn’t die, then they probably weren’t actually that sick. That being said, the boat ride was 45 minutes long so who knows how long it would’ve taken for someone to swim from Grosse-Île to the mainland.
We started off our visit with a brief history of the island and immigration. Most of these immigrants at the time were British (with Canada being a British colony), and an even greater number of these immigrants were Irish – with their lack of potatoes, they were seeking a greater future in Canada! During the 1800s, no one understood science, so as many immigrants as possible were smushed into boats in order to make the voyage over to Canada, so disease spread very easily. People also had to do their business in buckets and pots and of course the seas are choppy so pee and poo sloshed everywhere, leading to even more disease!
After this introduction, our guide gave us a tour of the Hotel Sector, where both sick and healthy immigrants stayed (not sure how that works). Class divisions were still apparent at this time, so there were three hotels, one for each class. I didn’t get to see the inside of the Second Class building, but it looks quite pleasant overlooking the water. In the First Class building, each person got his or her own room with a sink, and there was also a nice dining area!
Then we continued our tour up to the Celtic Cross, which honours the Irish who died from disease in 1847. It has plaques on it, written in French, English, and Gaelic.
Next, we visited the Irish Cemetery and the Memorial. The Memorial lists the names of all the people who died on the island or en route to Canada from the 1830s to 1930s. Thousands of people died in 1847 as a result of the Great Potato Famine; the panels in the picture below are all names from that year, a huge contrast to the years before and after (which listed anywhere from 20-100 names).
We then continued to the Disinfection Building, where we participated in a reenactment of an immigrant’s experience. Upon arriving to Grosse-Île, immigrants had to be inspected for disease. We were inspected by a nurse and an officer – they looked at our tongues (black tongues = typhus), we had to open our mouths and say “Ahhh,” and we had to squeeze our fingers and let go to prove that we had good circulation. The officer then explained how immigrants had to give officials all of their belongings so that their stuff could be inspected too. We then went on a tour of the disinfection building with the nurse. Below is a picture of the (terrifying) shower. People would leave their clothes on a stool outside the shower so that the clothes could be disinfected, and then they would cleanse themselves with water mixed with some sort of chemical (SCARY).
We ended off the day with a tour of the rest of the island, which consisted of the officers’ (doctors, nurses, etc.) village, and the Hospital Sector. The red picture below is of a room in the Hospital Sector; it was believed that the colour red helped with smallpox somehow.
Grosse-Île was probably the most educational touristy place I visited during this trip! It was very eye-opening and I feel very thankful for my health, and also the fact that I don’t need to spend months on a boat in order to travel from place to place.