Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Grosse Île: The Human Drama of 19th-Century Canadian Immigration


Philippe Gauthier

A podcast with Philippe Gauthier, interpreter at Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada

Point of arrival and final destination

On the day we crossed from from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River to Grosse Île, one of the most important National Historic Sites in this nation, it was a simple pleasant crossing. For the many who landed at Grosse Île in the 19th century, however, it was a moment of very mixed emotions.

Part of an archipelago of islands in the St. Lawrence River downstream from Québec City where the river narrows, Grosse Île was the main gateway for immigration into Canada until the beginning of the First World War. It was the unforeseen gateway and precipitant port of call where many thousands of immigrants, who were essentially economic refugees, first set foot on Canadian soil. But it became a critical “transition zone,” and unfortunately for over 5000 potential new citizens of Canada it was also the end of their dream of a new life.

History is replete with cruel irony, none more so than that witnessed on Grosse Île. Escaping from extreme poverty, pestilent disease, and socio-economic and political disparity, the migrants who were unfortunately destined to spend time (or stay for eternity) on Grosse Île unwittingly transported their misery with them and were thus twice victimized. Grosse Île has since become synonymous with great suffering and sacrifice and the despair that must have been felt by so many who had chosen Canada as a refuge.

As visitors to this National Historic Site will discover however, Grosse Île was also a unique microcosm in which great courage was demonstrated, where medical science (eventually) took a significant step forward, and where a transient and impermanent community collaborated and functioned to the best of its ability — given the inexorable circumstances. The fact that the community, for all intents and purposes, eventually disappeared is perhaps the single most important triumph in the history of Grosse Île. Despite the great loss of human life that occurred on this peaceful island, the survivors continued their journey of hope, and moved on to develop and populate a young nation.

In today’s terms, Grosse Île is more than a metaphor for hope and suffering; it is also a complex narrative and dramatic lesson in the importance of understanding immigration history and how human migration shapes any nation. In many ways Grosse Île became a crucible in which Canadian history and Canadian society took form. On a very practical and political level, it was a place where Canadian government policy and practices in terms of immigration flow was also put to the test and refined. This, however, was accomplished only at great cost — human costs — but it was nonetheless a defining moment in Canadian history.

An unanticipated refuge

As we found it on a lovely July day, Grosse Île is a tranquil island and a biologically diverse habitat that also makes it a significant green tourism destination. As a unique getaway in a world where, on another level, many people are searching for a refuge far from the madding crowd, Grosse Île (and the other nearby islands in the Île-aux-Grues archipelago) is a pleasant day trip and an opportunity to regain a renewed perspective on the happenstance nature of history but also on the steadfast nature of the human spirit.

Grosse Île lies within a transition zone — an unintended metaphor but a metaphor nonetheless — between the estuarine and maritime sections of the St. Lawrence. In this distinct biological zone, the island is also home to a large diversity of habitats and a number of species of plants considered either endangered, threatened, or approaching their distributional limits. The waters of the St. Lawrence that surround the island are a dynamic mix of sea and fresh water, due to the formidable tides of this great river. That constant mixing of waters gives birth to many aquatic species as well as the land and air species that are part of the river’s interconnected ecosystem. And the metaphors of the mixing of human beings from “overseas,” of the often tragic tide of human history, and of regeneration, is not lost on the visitor to Grosse Île.

Epidemics, famine, and human ballast

A fundamental scientific lesson we all eventually learn, in one way or another, is that of relentless cause and effect. Part of the lesson, however, is the far-reaching effects of the cause. And Grosse Île felt the effects of cholera and typhoid epidemics raging throughout Europe in the 19th century as well as what has been called the Great Irish Famine.

It also, albeit indirectly, felt the effect of the Napoleonic Wars and the blockade that Bonaparte imposed on Europe. That blockade occurred during the great age of wooden sailing ships; and it required Great Britain, which was striving to maintain its Rule Britannia status, to turn to Canada for lumber for their much needed navy and merchant ships. Lumber however is heavy, and therefore the ships that transported it from Canada to Great Britain needed ballast to make the return voyage. At the same time, populations in Europe were reaching their limits, especially in Ireland, and poor emigrants escaping miserable social conditions and starvation provided the ballast in the lowest and least healthy parts of these ships — “steerage” — where the steering apparatus and other machinery was located. Such airless conditions were of course a pernicious breeding ground for disease among already malnourished human beings.

The cholera epidemic in Europe of 1832 was followed by the famine of 1845-1849 and another pandemic in 1847, this time typhoid. Almost overwhelmed by the transportable effects of these combined events, the British colonial government in Canada (Canada would not gain independence until 1867) turned Grosse Île into a kind of immigration depot and stop gap measure. It became a quarantine station for all immigrants of the time coming to Canada because Québec City, about 50 kilometres upstream, was still the prime point of entry to the colony.

The numbers

The statistical data is appalling. Between 1832 and 1937 more than four million immigrants from 60 countries entered Canada through the port of Québec. In the critical years between 1832 and 1913, more than 30,000 were hospitalized on Grosse Île. In the very darkest years, between 1832 and 1847, 5000 immigrants would die and be buried at sea. There would be 5424 burials on Grosse Île in 1847 alone. In total, 7756 people would eventually die and be buried on Grosse Île in individual and mass graves, the latter in coffins stacked three-deep.

The Irish connection

As Irish immigrants represented the majority of the economic refugees, they also count for the most number of deaths. They are buried in what is known today as the Irish Cemetery. A short walk from the cemetery takes you to a highpoint on the island overlooking the St. Lawrence and the largest Celtic Cross in the world, erected by the Ancient order of Hiberians in memory of the Irish victims of 1847 and 1848. It is the largest Irish Famine burial ground located outside Ireland and is twinned with the National Famine Museum of Strokestown Park located in County Roscommon, Ireland.


Also nearby the Irish Cemetery is the 1997 memorial erected in memory of all those who died on Grosse Île.

The monument is unlike any other I have seen; very simple in structure and also evocative on a number of levels. Set next to a natural hillside of granite and uncultivated growth, it is made of rough irregular shaped stones that form tight corridor-like curving walls, which are both intimate spaces and yet suggest the confinement that immigrants on long journeys by ship to Canada would have experienced. Seen from above, it is the shape of a Celtic cross. Rust-coloured free form steel panels inserted into the structure give the monument some degree of verticality but not loftiness; this is a monument to simple people who came looking for the basics of life. Inset here and there in the walls are simple bronze sculptures that hint at what was hoped for and lost; as well as lives suspended. But the artistic triumph inherent in this simple monument is a semi-circular wall of glass on the opposite side to the hillside. As you stand with your back to the rough stones and symbolic harsh landscape of the hillside, you see through the glass to meadows, marshes, and a very green landscape. The scene however is both foreground and background because on the glass are the names of all those who were buried on Grosse Île. Created by artist Lucienne Cornet and the Émile Gilbert et Associés architectural firm, the aesthetics, transparency, and juxtapositions of the monument combine to produce a profound sense of what Grosse Île has come to represent.

Not far from this monument is another; a separate and equally simple but more traditional monument carved from a marble stele and decorated with a cornice and urn. It is the oldest commemorative artifact on Grosse Île (circa 1853), and is inscribed with the names of doctors who sacrificed their lives to the various diseases as a result of treating sick immigrants.

For me, the most poignant of the numerous sites that can be visited on Grosse Île is what is still called the lazaretto, the last of 12 simple wooden structures built in 1847 to house quarantined immigrants. At best, the building looks like the kind of structure you might expect to find at a summer camp for children. Its use of course had a much more sombre purpose. Looking through the window out to the St. Lawrence, there is a sense of the intense anxiety and confinement that the inhabitants must have felt. In one section a medical officer had painted the room a deep red as by chance he had discovered that the infra-red light produced by the reflections from the light outside tended to reduce the severity of pustules that small pox victims who were housed here developed.

The term lazaretto however is also appropriate both to this particular building but to Grosse Île itself. The word originated in Venice of the 16th century when ships were arriving in that city from plague-infested regions in the East. The word originally suggested a “house for reception of lepers and diseased poor persons,” but also a haven, however poor, for those who were shunned and set apart from mainstream society. In Biblical mythology Lazarus was the poor beggar left to die in the street outside a rich man’s house and whom Jesus Christ “raised from the dead.”

Those hapless immigrants who lost their lives on the way to Canada or while quarantined on Grosse Île were victims in many ways. They of course will never be raised from the dead but this National Historic Site does give them a place in history not normally granted to ordinary people in search of a better life. They are in that sense immortalized on a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River.

The spirits of Grosse Île

slideshowiconTo watch a slide show of contemporary and archival images and imagery from Grosse Île, click here.

Other information about Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial

• On May 17, 1847, the ship Syria arrived at Grosse Île with 430 fever cases aboard. Eight more ships followed a few days later. A week later 17 more arrived. Within a short period of time there were 10,000 immigrants waiting to be inspected and processed on Grosse Île.

• In the same year the ship Agnes arrived with 427 passengers. Only 150 of them would survive the quarantine period; the rest were buried on the island.

• On June 1 of that year the Catholic Archbishop of Québec wrote to all Catholic Bishops and Archbishops in Ireland asking them to dissuade their parishioners from emigrating to Canada.

• By June 5, 25,000 Irish immigrants were quarantined on Grosse Île.

• Arriving ships that had sick immigrants aboard were required to fly a blue flag.

• Despite the efforts to quarantine the sick, the diseases were carried by seemingly healthy passengers who then proceeded to cities such as Québec, Montréal, Kingston, and Toronto.

• One of the survivors processed at Grosse Île was the grandfather of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

• The main diseases for which passengers were quarantined between 1832 and 1932 were cholera, typhus, smallpox, and the bubonic plague.

• Medical science in the early days of Grosse Île would certainly be considered primitive by today’s standards although they improved quickly as the desperate need arose. Initially the scientifically unsound Miasma theory of disease was presumed responsible in part for the spread of disease. According to this faulty theory “bad air,” in which particles from decomposed matter (miasmata) were borne, transferred the diseases. The theory continued into the 1800s and was in part responsible for Baron Haussman’s rebuilding and reorganization of the city of Paris. Even Florence Nightingale was a proponent of the theory, and a remnant of it is found in the word malaria which comes from the Italian mala aria or “bad air.” Today on Grosse Île you can see special wooden openings in the walls of some buildings which were incorporated into the walls to allow the bad air to be ventilated.

• In 1993 the Government of Canada declared Grosse Île a National Historic Site.

• With the coming of the age of steam ships, the immigration and quarantine processes were speeded up significantly. Much better medical science was put into practice, thanks to a great extent to Dr. Frédérick Montizambert, a bacteriologist who served as the station’s chief medical officer from 1869 to 1899.

• First, second, and third class hotels were eventually built which accommodated arriving quarantined passengers in the same class of “comfort” in which they travelled aboard ship. The island itself was divided into three sections: the sick were confined to the east, the presumed healthy to the west, and in the centre of the island where movement was controlled was the administration centre and staff quarters.

• Today visitors to Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial can visit some of the original buildings including the inspection-disinfection-detention shed alongside the wharf. A trolley service allows for ease of movement as the walking distances can be lengthy.

• Within the coming of the First World War and the Great Depression of 1929, immigration to Canada was significantly reduced and Grosse Île as a quarantine station was closed in 1937. In 1951 under the auspices of the Canadian National Defence Department, it was used as an experimentation station for biological warfare including experiments conducted with malignant pustule or anthrax. By 1965 it was a quarantine station for animals coming into the country.


Parks Canada and Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site website

Getting to Grosse Île

Where to stay while visiting Grosse Île

We stayed at Manoir des Érables. in the nearby town of Montmagny.

Manoir Montmagny is part of the Hôtellerie Champêtre. This association of independently-owned and operated hotels is interesting in itself from a cultural design point of view; it is also an interesting business story and a travel industry role model. The French word champêtre evokes a rural setting (champ means field), however in terms of décor and design it also suggests earth tones, heritage architectural features, and an ambiance that is not over the top and unnecessarily chi chi. One feels quite at home at each property. Each establishment has a unique architecture and physical setting. And as a gastronomical destination in itself, we can certainly recommend the Manoir. The town of Montmagny is also an excellent point de départ for exploring the Chaudière-Appalaches Tourism Region.

While you are in the area a visit to the Musée maritime du Québec is highly recommended.

The National Famine Museum of Strokestown Park which is located in County Roscommon, Ireland.


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