During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Québec City was Canada’s major port of immigration. Many British Home Children, on their way to the receiving homes in various parts of the country, travelled through its doors.
Yet, the British Home Children were only part of the unprecedented immigration travelling down the St. Lawrence River and it was a time of major cholera and smallpox epidemics in Europe. In order to help control the spread of the diseases, a quarantine station at Grosse Île, located in the St. Lawrence River downstream from the City of Québec, was opened.
The Quarantine Act of 1832 stipulated that all ships had to make a mandatory stop at Grosse Île, for a medical inspection. Any ship that did not stop could be fired on by the quarantine station’s guns. The pilot who guided the vessel to the island presented the captain of the ship with a copy of the Act. Then, upon arrival at Grosse Île, a doctor boarded and looked at the passenger manifest and the ship’s log, which contained information about any illnesses and deaths during the crossing.
Assembled passengers and crew were checked for early symptoms of disease which could be fever or a rash. Any ill person in the ship’s infirmary was examined and then the overall health of passengers was determined. Based on this information, the doctor issued the necessary certificate to enter the Port of Québec or place it under quarantine.
Ill passengers were placed in quarantine on one part of the island and those who had come in contact with them were put into ‘observation’ on another. Contact between the two groups was prohibited.
In the beginning, ships under quarantine were cleansed with water and ‘aired’. After the discovery of scientific disinfection, such as superheated steam, bichloride of mercury, sulphur dioxide and formaldehyde, the process became more effective. Disembarked passengers were required to shower in water and bichloride of mercury. Their belongings were sterilized.
Grosse Île was used as a quarantine station for more than 100 years until it was closed in 1937. The worst year of operation was the terrible cholera epidemic of 1847, when 3,000 Irish immigrants, who had been fleeing the ‘Great Hunger’, died there. Over 5,000 more of them died at Sea in what were called ‘Coffin Ships’.
The Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial was erected in 1997 to commemorate the massive arrival of Irish immigrants who were victims of the Great Famine and it also provides the names of 8,339 people of various nationalities who were buried in the Grosse Île cemeteries from 1832 to 1937.
Today, Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial is a National Historic Site of Canada.