In the spring of 1847, thousands of Irish migrants fleeing famine arrived in Canadian harbours bearing a deadly sickness. Back then, it was known as ship fever – a reflection of how mysterious and frightening the disease was. We now know they suffered from typhus spread by lice aboard the squalid vessels that carried them across the Atlantic. But at the time there was little understanding of how to stop the contagion or treat the infected.
If parts of the above sound eerily familiar to a pandemic-scarred country, so will this: Ignorance of the illness didn’t stop doctors and nurses from trying valiantly to save as many of the newcomers as they could. From the Maritimes to Lake Ontario, health workers housed the epidemic’s victims in “pest houses” and “fever sheds.” The death toll was terrible – more than 5,000 in the quarantine station of Grosse Île; as many as 6,000 in Montreal – and included many of those who cared for the dying.
Among the fallen medical heroes was Dr. George Robert Grasett. He was a respected physician, with a reputation for helping the poor, when the coffin ships started arriving in Toronto. Appointed to help lead the city’s new Emigrant Hospital, he lasted less than a month before succumbing to typhus himself, likely contracted from one of his patients.
On Friday, a new park will open in his honour – an occasion with a tragic, unexpected resonance today. When work began on the downtown Toronto memorial in 2017, no one predicted that a new, fast-travelling disease would soon make many more Dr. Grasetts. But this is just what COVID-19 did. At least 50 Canadian health care workers have died from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, after putting themselves in the way of danger to help their fellow citizens – much like their colleagues 150 years before them.
The dedication of Grasett Park is a good occasion to reflect on that long-ago moment of national welcoming and sacrifice, but also to mourn and appreciate the recent sacrifices of the front-line staff who kept our health system going in the face of so much suffering during the past 18 months.
To be sure, Canada’s experience in 1847 is worth commemorating all on its own. The scale of mass immigration and death from disease that Canada witnessed was monumental, dwarfing our contemporary experiences of landing Syrian refugees and battling the COVID-19 pandemic. How the country coped with that influx 20 years before Confederation is a remarkable story.
Consider that Toronto, then a town of about 20,000 people, saw more than 38,000 Irish immigrants arrive on its shores – the equivalent of almost six million people suddenly arriving in Toronto this year. Now imagine those six million had a staggeringly high rate of COVID-19 infection and spread it widely through the population. In the end, 20,000 people are thought to have died in Canada’s typhus epidemic of 1847, while more than 100,000 Irish migrants came to British North America that year, when the colonies had a population of about two million.
Further straining local hospitality, most of the newcomers were Roman Catholic, at a time when Toronto was a Protestant bastion and that sectarian divide was sharp as a knife’s edge. The “emigrants,” as they were known, were often treated with fear and contempt. Not every physician treating the sickly arrivals could bear it; one quit after just three days over the facility’s alarming sanitary conditions. To stay was often to die; the staff knew that. Dr. Grasett had every reason to shy away from this ordeal. That he didn’t is remarkable.
Health care workers across the country have made the same brave calculation in the past year, knowingly putting themselves in the thick of killer outbreaks to perform their duty. Dozens have lost their lives as a result, such as Stéphanie Tessier, an orderly in her early 30s who died after contracting COVID-19 in a long-term care home near Montreal; or Diana Law, a 57-year-old nurse and mother of two teenagers in B.C., who was immuno-compromised but kept going into work anyway.
Canadian society hasn’t always done right by our guardian angels during the pandemic. The family of Leonard Rodriques, a personal support worker in Toronto who died of COVID-19 last May, says he didn’t have proper access to personal protective equipment – an outrageously common story. The least we can do now, as the crisis ebbs and we remember heroes past, is reflect on what we can do for the front-line heroes in our midst today.
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