Imagine a hot night in the summer of 1847. Lantern light creeps out through the doorways of a shed where Irish refugees, newly arrived in Toronto, lie sick with “ship fever.” Curtains of cheesecloth, placed to keep out insects, billow in the breeze. And through the door walks a figure: George Robert Grasett, a local doctor who has volunteered to treat the new arrivals.
Many of those newcomers, who left home to escape the Irish Potato Famine, would not survive their time in hospital. Ship fever, now known as typhus, would take their lives – and also those of Dr. Grasett and a dozen other medical personnel. Now, 174 years after Dr. Grasett’s death, a downtown Toronto park is commemorating him and his colleagues – medical professionals who showed up to fight a deadly disease, and sacrificed themselves.
Grasett Park, which officially opens Friday on Adelaide Street West in Toronto, brings this history back into view. “It’s a story of incredibly courageous people who do the right things, notwithstanding the objections of people in their social milieu,” said Robert Kearns, head of the Canada Ireland Foundation, which helped create the park. “That is a fantastic story of the early history of our city: Of welcoming people and accepting people.”
Designed by the architects Denegri Bessai Studio, the small park stands on the block once occupied by the Emigrant Hospital, where Torontonians treated the new arrivals in “fever sheds” built for that purpose. The park’s rectangle of 70 by 20 feet (21 by six metres) is about the same size as one of those sheds.
Construction was just being finished this week. Already its granite paving was in place; digital waterjet cutters had engraved the panels with an 1842 map of Toronto. A small steel inlay marked Rees Quay, where most of the Irish landed; another marked the location of the Emigrant Hospital itself. “As you walk through this space, you are moving through the history, and through the city itself,” Tom Bessai, partner at Denegri Bessai, explained in an interview.
The small park’s most prominent element is a set of four glass panels, about five metres tall, which form a tent-like assemblage. This suggests the theme of shelter – “the shelter that Toronto provided to those who arrived here,” Mr. Kearns suggests. The glass panels are etched with a pattern that evokes the curtains of 1847.
It’s a subtle, symbolic exploration of these dramatic events. A set of panels, written by architectural historian Connor Turnbull, will spell out the details. In 1847, Toronto had about 20,000 people. That summer, the third year of the Irish “Great Hunger,” roughly 38,500 Irish people landed in Toronto. They were largely very poor, many of them tenant farmers under exploitative British rule. Around 10 per cent of the arrivals were ill, many with typhus, a highly contagious and dangerous disease.
They were not very welcome. Because of their nationality and their Catholicism, they were disdained by many of the colony’s residents, including its Anglican elite. And yet Toronto’s leaders and its Board of Health prepared to treat them, repurposing the city’s General Hospital as the Emigrant Hospital, and building wooden “fever sheds” to treat the waves of Irish refugees.
Dr. Grasett, a member of the Anglican colonial elite, volunteered to be head of the Emigrant Hospital. This choice put him in obvious danger: “He knew when he volunteered that he stood a good chance of losing his life,” Mr. Kearns said. And indeed he did. He began treating refugees in mid-June; he died on July 16. The park’s opening is the 174th anniversary of his death.
Research by the foundation revealed the names of the hospital’s Dr. Joseph Hamilton, head nurse Susan Bailey, four nurses and three orderlies, all of whom died of typhus. Information panels in the park memorialize them.
The park is a labour of love for Mr. Kearns. He immigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1979, and has been engaged more or less ever since in commemorating the relationship between the two countries. The Canada Ireland Foundation commissioned a memorial to Irish famine victims on Toronto’s waterfront.
The foundation played an unusually large role in creating the park, commissioning the design, contributing funds and bringing in other contributions.
But it is a city park. Local city councillor Joe Cressy has been personally involved in Grasett Park’s planning over the past few years. “Little did we know we would be in the midst of a pandemic, honouring those on the front lines,” he said, “but history has a way of repeating itself.”
“It reflects the best of Toronto’s history,” he said. “It is a story of migration, a story of compassion and selflessness.”
For the moment, the park’s corner of Adelaide and Widmer streets is often quiet. But as COVID-19 fades into memory, the nearby office buildings fill up again, and residents fill the new condo tower across the street, this will welcome a new stream of people.
For some, the carved image of a much smaller Toronto and those evocative glass panels will recall a long-ago moment in a very different city. But a moment when the values that Canada and Toronto profess to hold were already present. “It reflects the best of Toronto’s history,” said Mr. Cressy. “It is a story of migration, a story of compassion and selflessness.”
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