Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada

Grosse Île at a glance

Stopover at Grosse Île
A New Land…
Family of immigrants Family of immigrants
© National Archives of Canada / Illustrated London News / C-6556

After 1815, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, an increasing number of emigrants left the British Isles and, later on, continental Europe, to settle themselves in Britain's North American colonies. The movement of these people occurred at a time when great epidemics of infectious diseases were sweeping through Europe.

The arrival of all these immigrants at the Port of Québec brought with them worry about the transmission of these diseases. The colonial authorities decided to set up a quarantine station on Grosse Île because the island had the important geographical advantages of its close proximity to the Port of Québec, its distance from the local population, and its location along the sea lane.

The First Installations

The first quarantine buildings were hastily erected in 1832. Once the cholera hospital was built, other buildings were erected in its vicinity. The proximity of the living quarters of the sick to those of the healthy, the haphazard way people were accomodated, as well as the lack of scientific knowledge in the treatment of the sick are some of the striking features of the first decades of the quarantine at Grosse Île.

The first installations of the station quarantine on the Grosse Île, in 1832 The first installations of the station quarantine on the Grosse Île, in 1832
© Parks Canada / Drawing B. Duchesne / 1996
1847…A Year of Tragedy
Children suffering during the Great Famine Children suffering during the Great Famine
© Department of Rare Books and Special Collections McLennan Library, McGill University / Illustrated London News, 1847

After many poor potato harvests, Ireland was devastated by the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849, which forced a great part of its population to emigrate. In 1847, an unprecedented number of immigrants, the large majority being Irish, left for Québec. The resulting situation was tragic. The immigrants, weakened by malnutrition and famine, arrived in a deplorable state, many stricken with typhus. This illness quickly took on epidemic proportions. The personel was overwhelmed and Grosse Île could no longer support everyone. In 1847 alone, thousands died at sea, and were buried at Grosse Île. Thousands more died in Québec, Montréal and Kingston. It was indeed a dark year.

A Divided Island

After the tragedy of 1847, authorities changed the way immigrants were accommodated. From then on, Grosse Île was divided into three sections. The sick were confined to the east section, healthy immigrants to the west, and the administration to the centre. Barriers, checkpoints and guards separated these areas. The immigrants endured the harsh realities of quarantine.

The island divided in three sections The island divided in three sections
© Parks Canada
Inspection, Disinfection and Detention
Docteur Frederick Motizambert Doctor Frederick Motizambert
© Who's who in Canada / 1922 Edition

After Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government developed an immigration policy that demanded that quarantine services be effective and efficient. Dr. Frederick Montizambert, then medical superintendent, reorganized the station in accordance with new discoveries in bacteriology. He subjected ships and immigrants to strict and efficient health controls. He then modernized reception facilities and living quarters for immigrants on Grosse Île. Through his actions, Grosse Île came to fulfil the three main roles of a quarantine station: disinfection, ship inspection and the detention of the sick and the healthy.

Another Context
Immigrants arriving in Canada, around 1900 Immigrants arriving in Canada, around 1900
© National Archives of Canada / PA-30607

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Great War and the Crash of 1929 led to a considerable drop in immigration, which up until then, had been phenomenal. Furthermore, advances in microbiology and the treatment of infectious diseases made the quarantine station at Grosse Île obsolete. It closed its doors in 1937.

Change in Function

In 1942, during World War II, the Department of National Defence used the site as an experimental research station for bacteriological warfare. In 1956, the Grosse Île installations came under control of Agriculture Canada which established its veterinary pathology division there. In 1965, the Department built a quarantine station…for animals. Finally, in 1984, Grosse Île was officially recognized as a National Historic Site.