ReCollections: a Parks Canada podcast

A history and archaeology podcast.

ReCollections will take you on a journey, coast-to-coast-to-coast, from a Viking Age Norse settlement in Northern Newfoundland to a sacred Haida village site in Gwaii Haanas, where the rainforest meets the wild Pacific Ocean, with many stops in between. Each episode explores new places and stories to help make sense of a complicated past.

Ways to listen

Show notes, transcripts, and bibliographies

Bill Mason: Wilderness Artist - From Discover Library and Archives Canada podcast

A special episode from our friends at the Discover Library and Archives Canada podcast - Bill Mason: Wilderness Artist.

If you enjoyed our ReCollections episode Grosse-Île: The Quarantine Island, check out their The Shamrock and the Fleur-de-Lys episode to learn more about Irish immigration to Québec.

Bill Mason's films: Pukaskwa National Park and Paddle to the Sea.

Plan a visit to Pukaskwa National Park in Ontario.

Discover Library and Archives Canada podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe for lots more stories about the treasures in their collection.

Transcript

Fred Sheppard: Hello listeners, and welcome to a special episode of ReCollections. We’d like to introduce you to a podcast from our friends and colleagues over at Library and Archives Canada. It’s called Discover Library and Archives Canada. For over a decade they’ve been publishing episodes about topics as diverse as UFO sightings in Manitoba, historic Canadian comic books and the evolution of the sport of curling. One centres on Irish Immigration to Canada. If you enjoyed the ReCollections episode The Quarantine Island about Grosse-Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site, have a listen to The Shamrock and the Fleur de Lys.

Today, we’re sharing an episode with a different Parks Canada connection. The title is Bill Mason, Wilderness Artist. Our curators are excited about this one because the Parks Canada artifact collection contains a piece of Bill Mason history - a small carved canoe featuring an Indigenous man and his gear. Bill Mason was the mastermind behind the beloved 1966 National Film Board documentary Paddle to the Sea. The Oscar nominated film shows the journey of the carving from Lake Superior all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, passing through the great lakes, the St. Lawrence River and even over Niagara Falls!

The carving - one of several used in filming - was donated to Pukaskwa National Park, along the north-east shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. It’s a nod to Bill Mason’s love of the area, which he featured in his 1983 documentary called Pukaskwa National Park. Today, the carving is on display at the Pukaskwa Visitor Centre at Hattie Cove.

Check the show notes to learn more about the two films, and how to plan your visit to Pukaskwa National Park.

Discover Library and Archives Canada podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe for lots more stories about the treasures in their collection.

I’m Fred Sheppard, thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy Bill Mason: Wilderness Artist.

L'Anse aux Meadows: The Saga of Vinland

The first Europeans to set foot in North America? A group of Norse explorers from the Viking Age!

Travel back to the Viking Age to uncover the remnants of a thousand-year-old Norse encampment. We'll hear about their incredible journey from Greenland to northern Newfoundland from a diverse group of experts including historians, archaeologists, and interpreters at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site.

Learn more:

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

Transcript

Voice: This is a Parks Canada Production. Ce balado est aussi disponible en français.

Fred Sheppard: From the 9th to 11th centuries a group of norse people plundered, ravaged and conquered much of Northern Europe and beyond. They were Scandinavian warriors with fleets of ships, who gained the reputation as savage seafaring pirates. And, you may know these people as Vikings. But what you may not know is that one group of Norse explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in North America.

I'm Fred Sheppard and you're listening to ReCollections - The Saga of Vinland.

Parks Canada is known world-wide as a leader in nature conservation, but we do much more than that. Together with our partners, we commemorate the people, places, and events that have shaped what we now call Canada. Join us to meet experts from across the country as we explore the sites, stories and artifacts that bring history to life.

In this episode, we're going back a thousand years to The Viking Age, and exploring the first European settlement in North America. Welcome to L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site on the island of Newfoundland.

Now, one thing before we get going, the word Vikings, is not the right word to use for this group of Norse explorers. Viking refers to the act of ransacking villages and conquering lands. In the Old Norse language, Viking translates to something like: “pirate raid.” But, not every Norse person from that era spent their time as a Viking. Most of them were farmers and merchants - only a select few set out to raid and conquer other lands. So, instead of referring to this group as “vikings”, we're going to call them the Norse.

The Norse originated from the area known today as Scandinavia - the European countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their influence reached its height between the years 800 and 1050, when they established vast trade routes and colonized lands to their East and West, crossing long distances in their ships.

Older history textbooks often mythologized “The Age of Exploration” when Europeans like Christopher Columbus, Jaques Cartier and John Cabot quote unquote “discovered” the New World beginning in 1492. So let's bust that myth: no one can “discover a place where people have lived for millenia.

And based on evidence from L'anse aux Meadows, the Norse - who also did not “discover” North America - arrived nearly 500 years before Columbus.

And where the Norse landed was the Northern tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula.

We know this place as L'Anse aux Meadows - a small village roughly 1000km northwest of St. John's - the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador. L'Anse aux Meadows, or L'anse aux Meadeaux is an interesting mix of languages, partially explained by the fact that the region was home to fishing activity by first the French, then the English. To work out the details of this unique name, we got in touch with a local.

Loretta Decker: There's an older map which refers to L'anse aux Medea. So in all likelihood, L'anse aux Meadows was actually named after a French fishing vessel.

FS: This is Loretta Decker, a Parks Canada interpreter at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Her family has lived in L'Anse aux Meadows since her great-great-great grandfather William Decker founded the village around 1835.

LD: L'Anse aux Meadows was a small fishing community. Everybody fished and at the time. You could go out and boat to various communities if there was no ice. If there was ice or snow, you could go on dog team and if it was in the fall or the spring you had to walk. So, you might walk 23 kilometers to see your girlfriend.

FS: Loretta is one of 16 year-round residents of L'Anse aux Meadows today.

And while it gets a little busier these days during tourist season, it's still the kind of place where you can encounter a herd of caribou - that's what happened to Loretta the day we talked to her!

Since the 1960s, L'Anse aux Meadows has evolved from a boat-access only fishing village into the home of the only officially recognized Norse settlement in North America, which led to a pair of important historical designations - it was named a national historic site in 1968 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

But before the Norse made it here, many Indigenous nations lived in the area for thousands of years. Which is why several generations of villagers thought the raised dirt mounds in a nearby field were the remains of an ancient Indigenous camp. It would take a couple of Norwegian researchers to reveal what they really were…

But, why did the Norse ever come here in the first place?

Back in the Viking Age, the Norse colonized or invaded much of coastal Europe, Asia and beyond, eventually establishing a major settlement on the island of Iceland. One Norse explorer, Erik the Red, moved to Iceland with his family when he was a child. In his adult years, he murdered one too many people and was exiled. Now an outlaw, he decided to sail West, eventually establishing a small colony on faraway Greenland. And one generation later, his son, Leif Ericsson, led an expedition to explore even further west.

And we know all of this because of a series of epic tales known as The Icelandic Sagas. These Sagas are stories of the Viking Age passed down for centuries. But like the game of broken telephone, some of the details changed over time. Finally, a couple of centuries after the events took place, someone wrote them down - so while some parts are archaeologically verifiable, many are not. We'll focus on the two that mention North America, collectively known as the Vinland Sagas.

Here is Loretta again - our Parks Canada interpreter with the Vinland story.

LD: There was a trader called Bjarni. And he had been intending to spend a winter with his father in Iceland. When he arrived in Iceland, his father was no longer there. His father had moved to Greenland, so he took his ship and his crew, and he sailed for Greenland. Having never been there, he didn't really know what Greenland was like, but he got blown off course in a storm. And he saw this land and they described the men really wanting to go ashore and he just refuses and they see a number of mythical creatures and things like that too in the sagas. Then they sailed past a long beach and all this wooded area. And you know, there was valuable timber there obviously, but again, he wouldn't go ashore. This is not Greenland. And then finally, they spotted some other land of flat stones. That was a useless land, the saga says. They didn't go ashore. This is not Greenland. But eventually he makes his way back to Greenland and he describes the land that they saw and the resources that they saw there. So Leif Ericsson, who is the son of the sort of self-proclaimed chieftain of Greenland, Erik the Red, he decides that he's going to go. But he said they did better than Bjarni because they actually landed. So when they landed, the sagas talk about the dew from the grass and how sweet it was and the Meadows, and they were brought their sleeping bags ashore.

FS: The sagas describe three regions to the west of Greenland. During Leif's expedition, he named these lands Helluland, Markland and Vinland. Historians consider Helluland—land of flat stones—to be modern day Baffin Island, Markland—land of forests—to be Labrador, and Vinland, which translates to either land of wine or land of grass - to be Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The sagas describe Vinland as a bountiful place, full of valuable resources to the Greenlanders like timber and fur. And the L'Anse aux Meadows encampment was very likely part of the Vinland region. It was a prime location, with fish, fresh water, and wood....the keys to a successful coastal settlement, but the site had even more going for it.

LD: So the Norse chose L'anse aux Meadows as the site of their base camp because it had certain advantages that are not always apparent to modern people. L'Anse aux Meadows is on the tip of the great Northern peninsula that juts out into the ocean, there are a number of islands off shore, in fact, four large islands not that far off shore, that are almost like landmarks.

FS: Choosing a location was obvious. Easily described landmarks ensured that the Norse Greenlanders could navigate their way back. They built their settlement on a site overlooking a bay - on a clear day, it's possible to see as far as Labrador. There were rolling hills with long grass and shrubs, a forest nearby, and to the west, a stream running down from a bog to the ocean - today, it's called Black Duck Brook. Given L'anse aux Meadows proximity to what's now known as Iceberg Alley, there were probably icebergs floating by each summer.

The Norse built 8 longhouses, most of them living quarters, that looked like they sprang organically from the earth, with grass growing from the sharply peaked roofs.

LD: The original sod structures at L'anse aux Meadows were built in the Icelandic style. And that means it's a timber frame with layers of peat sod, peat walls, peat bricks, essentially. And that's just strips of peat that's cut up from the bog and they're just cut up into pieces about six, eight inches thick and about four feet long.

FS: Peat occurs naturally in bogs and other wetlands, and is made from layers of decayed plants. When harvested and dried, peat can be formed into bricks, which the Norse used for strong, insulated walls.

LD: And they're just laid in the walls. Like you would lay bricks.

FS: All that insulating peat in the walls and roofs, along with an interior fire pit, were important for keeping the Norse warm through a northern Newfoundland winter. All told, this settlement could support around 80 residents.

A couple of the buildings had a bit of a different use. After sailing down from Greenland, the Norse needed to mend their ships - and to do this, they required wood and metal. So, one of the houses was set up to process iron. In this house, the Norse built a furnace and a kiln to make iron tools and nails - nails that were needed to repair their ships.

This settlement was most likely used as a base camp for Leif Ericsson's expedition and others that followed, allowing for further exploration along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was also a place to gather timber, fix their ships, and load them up with resources to bring back to Greenland - hard labour that required strong men.

But women also had important roles in Norse society at the time, cooking, mending clothes and keeping up with the washing and cleaning - and the sagas mention some women joining at least one of the journeys to Vinland. With all the work of keeping the settlement running and exporting resources, it was probably a lively and busy place. But, after a few decades, it seems like the Norse abruptly abandoned their North American camp and never returned.

Use of the Norse settlement area continued after they left, this time by First Nations groups, including the ancestors of the Beothuk. Innu from Labrador occasionally came to the area to hunt and trap, and Inuit from Labrador came to trade.

Beginning in the early 1500s, French ships came seasonally to fish for cod. In the late 1700s, year-round settlements with families began popping up around the Northern coast of Newfoundland, including the village of L'anse aux Meadows. By the 20th century, 900 years after the Norse left, the search for Viking outposts had become a popular pastime for some adventurers, historians and archaeologists.

In the early 1900s, a Newfoundland businessman named William Azariah Munn studied the sagas and the coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador, trying to find traces of the long lost Vinland. He published a theory in the St. John's Daily Telegram in 1914 that the L'Anse aux Meadows area was the location of Leif Ericsson's encampment, but it took another half-century before any conclusive evidence was found. Enter: Helge Ingstad.

Helge began his career in Norway as a lawyer, but he had greater ambitions and a thirst for adventure. After selling his law practice, he spent several years as a trapper in Canada's Northwest Territories, and later became the governor of a region called Erik the Red's Land - a part of Greenland that was briefly annexed by Norway in the 1930s. Shortly after, he was named governor of Svalbard.

In 1941, Helge married archaeologist Anne Stine Moe. Together, they explored the remains of ancient Norse outposts along the western coast of Greenland that corresponded to the sagas. Their adventures led to a search for Vinland, using a map created by an Icelandic scholar in the 1500s and Munn's pamphlet from 1914 as references. Helge and Anne Stine spent the late 1950s scouring the Canadian coast by boat, plane and foot to find the fabled locations of Helluland, Markland and Vinland.

HELGE INGSTAD: And there was disappointments all the time

FS: This is Helge telling a documentary crew from the National Film Board of Canada about the search.

HG: And when I asked people about the ruins, many of these fishermen in Newfoundland, they kind of shake their head and thought the man was crazy, hunting for such a thing instead of doing some honest work. The very last place I came to, that was a place called L'anse aux Meadows. It was a very isolated place, there was no roads, they lived all by themselves. And there I met the very fine old timer, George Decker was his name. Yes he said right away, here's some ruins. There was a terrace close to a little creek called Black Duck Brook, beautiful thing. On this terrace you could see very very fine outlines of something that must have been houses.

FS: If the name ‘Decker' sounds familiar, you're right. George Decker, was another relative of Loretta Decker.

LD: My grandfather was George Decker and he helped lead the Ingstads to the site. So he showed them where there were obvious remnants of buildings, you could follow the outlines of walls. And for generations, people knew that at some point indigenous people had occupied that land, they knew nothing of the Norse of the Vikings. They had no reason to speculate it was anybody other than indigenous people from some time in the past.

FS: Over the next eight years the Ingstads, working with a team of archaeologists, uncovered the secrets of L'anse aux Meadows - work that Parks Canada later continued. All the archaeological material excavated during this early period belongs to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Birgitta Wallace: My name is Birgitta Wallace and I was first staff archeologist, then later senior archeologist.

FS: Dr. Birgitta Wallace is now retired from Parks Canada, but was one of the lead archaeologists during the early excavations .She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia with her husband, who she met while working at L'Anse aux Meadows. Her involvement began when she met Anne Stine at a conference. They realized they shared a passion for Norse history and archaeology and Anne Stine hired Birgitta to assist with the excavations in 1964. Birgitta left her job at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and traveled to the small village of L'Anse aux Meadows.

BW: There was no electricity in L'anse aux Meadows. There was no road to it, as I said. It was really isolated.

FS: Even in the 60s, L'Anse aux Meadows was still a very small town with no hotels, so Birgitta stayed with a local family.

BW: The daughter in the house Mildred, the 14 year old girl, laughed at me because I didn't know how to operate a kerosene lamp. There was of course, no running water or facilities of any kind. The actual excavation was rough. The weather was mostly really cool and wet that summer. We had a little hut on the site at the time where we could make coffee, actually, we made tea. And we lived from tea break to tea break, digging, freezing. So the actually digging was pretty miserable really, but we laughed a lot

FS: The team spent the next few years excavating the remains of buildings, looking for conclusive evidence that the site was Norse. Birgitta, though, was confident.

BW: I knew it was Norse because I had seen identical type ruins in Iceland. However, in 1964, when I was there, Anne Stine had asked me to dig a trench just outside the biggest house. But with me that year, was a young boy whose father had been active in trying to support work on the site and he dug and he found things. He kept saying, holding up a stone, is this something, or is this something. And then he held up a stone, which was a little donut shaped soapstone piece with a hole in the middle. And he said, Birgitta is this something?And I recognized that it was a spindle, a Norse type of spindle whorl, a kind used in the Viking period. And I said, Oh, Anne Stine, come here! And she came over and she said, are you crazy? And we hopped and danced.

FS: This spindle whorl was a common European tool used for spinning wool into thread, an artifact that could definitely be linked to the Norse, useful for creating cloth for clothing and sails for ships.

BW: So, that was actually the first really diagnostic item found. And that was a great consolation to all of us, I think. That was really exciting.

FS: Further into their excavations, Birgitta and her team found a broken needle made of bone. Both the spindle whorl and needle - important tools for making and repairing clothing - lend credibility to references in the sagas about women in Vinland, including the story of Gudrid, who gave birth to a baby named Snorri. If true, Snorri may have been the first recorded European born in North America. The excavations also turned up a bronze cloak pin. In the day before zippers, bronze pins were commonly used to fasten two ends of a cloak together. A wool cloak, like a short cape, draped over one's shoulders was a way to keep warm in cold climates. One of the most interesting finds, however, was a single, intact iron nail.

BW: We were really excited to find a whole nail and in such a condition. You could see that it was hand forged, but otherwise it looked just like a modern nail.

FS: Iron was essential for the Norse and their way of life. It was the raw material needed for tools that allowed them to farm, hunt, build ships and more.

LD: So iron was very important to the Norse people because it helped them build ocean going ships. The boards for the ships were overlapped and nailed one on top of the other. And then those seams were caulked with tar and sheep's wool and provide the watertight seal. And that ship would have required the iron nails to make that ship technology work.

FS: It's worth noting that Norse boats also used trunnels, which are essentially wooden nails that fared better in damp ocean environments. Instead of rusting, like iron nails, the cold, salt water preserves the wood. Now, iron artifacts are hard to date, making it difficult to place the found nail to the proposed Norse settlement timeline. But there are clues that indicate the nail was made by the Norse at L'Anse aux Meadows.

BW: If it hadn't been where it was, about depth of fifty five centimeters or so, way below the surface and among artifacts that we knew were Norse, we would have thought it was a modern nail. But it really made us think, this nail probably was made right here.

FS: The creation of iron is a big undertaking even with modern technology - and for the Norse, it was an extremely laborious process. Essentially, the Norse had to collect iron, in the form of bog iron nuggets, from nearby Black Duck Brook and the surrounding bog. Bog iron looks like brown rocks, and forms in peat bogs. All the decaying plants decompose and produce tannic acid, which extracts iron from the bedrock below creating something like an iron soup. When the iron forgewater starts flowing into the stream, it meets oxygen, and a chemical reaction creates iron oxide, in the form of lumps of bog iron. These lumps are collected and smelted, which is a process that involves roasting the iron at high temperatures to remove impurities. The concentrated iron is removed and the leftovers - called slag - are discarded. Bars of iron are later forged, super-heated and hammered into a shape like a nail or a knife.

And after comparing the properties of the slag piles found around the site to the properties of the nail, archaeologists found a perfect match, concluding that the nail was forged using bog iron found at L'Anse aux Meadows. This is exciting because it means this nail represents the earliest known evidence of iron smelting anywhere in North America.

One question that remains unanswered is: did the Norse and Indigenous peoples of the area ever meet? There isn't much evidence, but one group of artifacts found at L'anse aux Meadows may provide a clue: three butternuts and a burl of butternut wood. A butternut is a type of walnut that's native to Eastern North America - but not to the Island of Newfoundland, perhaps serving as evidence that the Norse continued their explorations further south where butternuts grow, or that they traded with Indigenous peoples.

For at least 3000 years, many different Indigenous cultures, including pre-Inuit groups such as the Groswater and Dorset peoples, and First Nations peoples such as the Beothuk and their ancestors have lived on the coast of Labrador, the island of Newfoundland and around the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. To understand more about the indigenous history at L'Anse aux Meadows, we spoke to Dr. Jenneth Curtis, an archaeologist for Parks Canada who has studied the excavations of Indigenous sites at L'anse Aux Meadows and the surrounding areas.

Jenneth Curtis: So we find essentially the remains of their campfires, the fired rock and charcoal and heated soils that are left behind as traces of that. And along with that, some of their tools that were left behind and some of the evidence of tool making activities. So one of those objects was a wooden harpoon shaft, which is a really interesting find, and it's very unusual to find a whole harpoon shaft made of wood. And that is on display at the L'Anse aux Meadows visitor center.

That harpoon shaft carbon dates to 3000 years ago, during the habitation of the Groswater people. But, closer to the time of the Norse…

JC: So, the indigenous people who were likely living in the area around 1000 years ago would have been the ancestors of today's first nations, the Innu of Labrador and the Beothuk who were living on the Island of Newfoundland, and those groups were engaged in a seasonally mobile pattern. So at L'anse aux Meadows, regularly coming by in the summertime to hunt birds, collect eggs, access wood resources.

FS: As to whether the Norse and any of these people met, it's a bit unclear.

JC: So we've said that we don't have direct evidence of the Norse meeting indigenous peoples onsite, but one of the things that I find really interesting is that they must have known that other people were there before them. When they arrived on the site at L'anse aux Meadows, they would have seen the remains of a large cooking pit on the terrace that the First Nations had dug a couple of hundred years previously, and actually situated one of their sod houses right next to that, that big hole on the terrace. So certainly the Norse would have known that someone was there before. Likewise, the indigenous peoples who came by the site after the Norse had been there, they would have seen the sod houses, the remains of the wood and other artifacts that the Norse had left behind when they were there.

FS: There are several possible explanations for why the Norse did not stay at L'Anse aux Meadows. Their population in the Greenland Settlements was small, so leaving for Vinland Voyages meant fewer hunters and farmers at home. Greenland was already a long way from their trading partners in Iceland and Norway, so they may have only wanted an outpost for exploring Vinland and exporting resources. Conflicts with at least one group of First Nations peoples may also have influenced the decision not to return.

We might never know the true reason why they left, but evidence of their stay has intrigued researchers and visitors alike for decades.

If you're lucky enough to visit L'Anse aux Meadows, it's worth taking a few minutes to imagine just how different the Canada we know today would look if the Norse had stayed. And if you're not yet convinced that a visit should be on your bucket list, let's hear from someone who calls the place home.

LD: L'Anse aux Meadows is a very special place for me and always has been. And I feel like that's where I belong. I'm most comfortable and most at ease and happiest by the water in L'Anse aux Meadows.

FS: There are also some truly epic sunsets, delicious berries like bakeapples and partridge berries, and even the occasional iceberg drifting by.

L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site operates daily from June to October. To get there, you can fly into St Anthony Airport or drive 4 hours north of Gros Morne National Park along route 430, the Viking Trail. Visitors can tour the archaeological site and spend some quality time with the Norse re-enactors at the reconstructed sod huts of the encampment. To see the amazing archaeological objects we talked about, drop in to the Visitor Centre or if you're in St-John's, stop by The Rooms, the Provincial museum of Newfoundland and Labrador.

ReCollections is produced by Parks Canada. A big thank you to Loretta Decker, Darrell Markewitz, and Dr. Jenneth Curtis. An extra special thank-you to Dr. Birgitta Wallace for helping with this episode and for her lifelong contributions to Norse history and archaeology. Her tireless efforts have brought this fascinating chapter of history to the world stage, and in 2015 her work was recognized with the Smith-Wintemberg Award, from the Canadian Association of Archaeologists, their highest honour.

Also, a big thanks to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador for the use of their archaeological collections and the National Film Board of Canada for the audio clips of Helge Ingstad. I'm your host, Fred Sheppard.

For loads of extras, including a Google Arts and Culture exhibition with artifact imagery and maps of the area, take a look at the show notes or visit parks.canada.ca/recollections.

Bibliography

Journal Articles and Books

  • Bowles, Graham, Rick Bowker, and Nathan Samsonoff. “Viking Expansion and the Search for Bog Iron.” Platforum 12 (2011): 25–37.
  • Krauskopf, Konrad B. Introduction to Geochemistry. New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1979.
  • Kristensen, Todd J., and Jenneth E. Curtis. “Late Holocene Hunter-Gatherers at L'Anse Aux Meadows and the Dynamics of Bird and Mammal Hunting in Newfoundland.” Arctic Anthropology 49, no. 1 (2012): 68–87.
  • Larsson, Mats G. “The Vinland Sagas and Nova Scotia: A Reappraisal of an Old Theory.” Scandinavian Studies 64, no. 3 (1992): 305–35.
  • Stanton, Mark R., Douglas B. Yager, David L. Frey, and Winfield G. Wright. “Formation of Geochemical Significance of Iron Bog Deposits.” Chapter E14 of Integrated Investigations of Environmental Effects of Historical Mining in the Animas River Watershed, San Juan County, Colorado, edited by Stanley E. Church, Paul von Guerard, and Susan E. Finger. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 1651, 2007. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1651/downloads/Vol2_combinedChapters/vol2_chapE14.pdf.
  • Thomson, Ornolfur, and Bernard Scrudder, eds. The Sagas of Icelanders. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1997. Accessed at: https://archive.org/details/sagasoficelander0000unse
  • Wallace, Birgitta. “L'Anse Aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment.” In Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of North America, edited by Patricia Sutherland, 207-238. Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2003.
  • Wallace, Birgitta. “L'Anse Aux Meadows, Leif Eriksson's Home in Vinland.” Journal of the North Atlantic 2, no. 2 (2009): 114–125.
  • Wallace, Birgitta. “The Norse in Newfoundland: L'Anse Aux Meadows and Vinland.” Newfoundland Studies 19, no. 1 (2003): 6–43.

News and Magazine Articles

Films

Government Documents

  • Rick, John. “The L'Anse Aux Meadows Site, Newfoundland.” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Agenda Paper 1968-40, 109-110.
  • “L'Anse Aux Meadows - an Archaeological Review and Status Report.” HSMBC, Agenda Paper 1967-5, 79-81.
  • Stopp, Marianne. “The Norse Greenlandic Navigator.” Heritage Conservation and Commemoration Directorate, Parks Canada, 2014.
  • Stopp, Marianne. “The Norse Greenlandic Shipwright - Resource Notes.” Heritage Conservation and Commemoration Directorate, Parks Canada. 2014.
Dawson City: A Ruby in the Rough

Did you know: Parks Canada conserves a building in the Yukon that once housed a brothel?

Welcome to Ruby's Place in Dawson City, “the Paris of the North.” Through the remarkable lives of Madam Ruby Scott and her employees, we'll hear about Dawson's Gold Rush heyday and the boom/bust cycle of both the mining and sex work industries. At the heart of the story is Ruby's Place, an elegant false-front building conserved as part of the Klondike National Historic Sites… despite the threats from climate change.

Learn more:

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

Transcript

Voice Actor: This is a Parks Canada production. Ce balado est aussi disponible en français.

Fred Sheppard: Yukon Territory, 1896

Voice Actor: Gold!

FS: San Francisco, 1897

Voice Actor: Sacks of gold from the Klondike!

FS: Declared the front-page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Voice Actor: Half a million dollars in dust on one steamer

FS: 1898, a hundred thousand people, including many intrepid women, braved unimaginable hardship to make their way to Dawson City at the heart of the Klondike Gold fields.

A small percentage made a fortune, most did not. A more reliable income came from mining the miners - hotels, restaurants, dance halls and saloons arose from the permafrost, along with a number of brothels. And in the 1970s, Parks Canada bought one!

Karen Routledge: That's a good question, why does Parks Canada have a brothel?

FS: I'm Fred Sheppard and you're listening to Re:Collections - A Ruby in the Rough.

Parks Canada is known world-wide as a leader in nature conservation, but we do much more than that. Together with our partners, we commemorate the people, places, and events that have shaped what we now call Canada. Join us to meet experts from across the country as we explore the sites, stories and artifacts that bring history to life.

Today, we're visiting the Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site in Dawson City, Yukon, to learn more about one of its most scandalous buildings: Ruby's Place, a former brothel that operated in the mid 1900s and was run by an extraordinary woman, Madam Ruby Scott.

A quick note before we get started, in this episode, we will be discussing sex work, but not in graphic detail. Listener discretion is advised.

Dawson City, “the Paris of the North,” at one point Canada's biggest city west of Winnipeg, where fortunes were made and fortunes were lost. Located in the Yukon territory, it's about 100 kilometres east of the Alaska border, on the shore of the Yukon River where it merges with the Klondike River.

The area now called Dawson City has been home to the Indigenous ancestors of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in since long before the influx of settlers in the 1800's. For millennia, they've relied on salmon and caribou, maintaining a reciprocal relationship with the land and its occupants.

Small mountains and fir trees surround the town. On the north end, there's a visible scar on the hill from an ancient landslide, known as Ëdhä dädhëchą or Moosehide Slide. For centuries, It's been a convenient landmark for river travelers that features in many Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in oral histories.

Dawson is only 250 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. It's known for midnight sun in summers and in winter, the dark polar nights are punctuated by Northern Lights dancing in the sky.

Today, the roads are mostly gravel, with the exception of Front St, which was paved in 2009. The sidewalks are raised wooden boardwalks, and the downtown storefronts wouldn't look out of place on a Western movie set.

Ruby's Place, the former brothel, is on Second Avenue, just south of the British Bank of North America and the Dawson Downtown Hotel. The two-story wooden building is white with dark green trim, and features two bay windows jutting out from the bedrooms on the second floor. It's not hard to imagine the resident sex workers looking out at the streetscape below, waiting for the next man with a pocketful of cash to come calling.

But, Before the town and buildings, this swampy land was the site of an epidemic of Gold Fever.

KR: In North America, in the 1800s, looking for gold was a major activity. People were fanning out all over the continent trying to find gold.

FS: This is Parks Canada historian, Karen Routledge.

KR: Gold was seen as a very stable kind of wealth and also one, that, when it was placer gold, meaning that when it was found as nuggets in the creeks, anybody could, in theory, strike it rich and extract it themselves. So from the 1870s onward, there were miners coming into the Yukon Territory to look for gold.

FS: In 1896, the Klondike Gold Rush kicked off when a substantial deposit of gold was found in Rabbit Creek near Dawson, an area that's now Discovery Claim National Historic Site.

The following summer, the San Francisco Examiner broke the news, creating an instant frenzy with reports of ships laden with gold nuggets found in the Yukon. And by the end of 1897, tens of thousands had arrived at the port of Skagway, Alaska, determined to traverse the treacherous overland route to Dawson.

For most, the first of many challenges was the Chilkoot Trail, an important trade route for the Tlingit people. The 53 kilometre trail, today a national historic site and backpacking destination, winds its way up from Skagway over the Chilkoot Pass and on to Bennett Lake, which straddles the BC-Yukon border. The stampeders, as the gold rush travelers were called, hauled heavy equipment and supplies by foot, often dealing with deep river crossings, blizzards, avalanches and frigid temperatures.

Once at Bennett Lake, the stampeders constructed rafts and boats to float 800 kilometres down the Yukon River to Dawson. For many, the ordeals of the journey proved too much - of the hundred thousand stampeders, less than half made it to Dawson.

KR: Dawson is where it is, not because it's a great place for a settlement - it's actually quite swampy and it's been flooded many times. It was the closest good place for a steamboat landing to the goldfields. And all of the goods that came in and out were coming in by Steamboat.

FS: At the height of the gold rush, Dawson's population was 30,000.

KR: If you look at photos from that time, you can see tents up the hillside, just every piece of available ground. There's someone on it.

FS: Today, the population is down to just 2300 year-round residents.The stampeders, mostly men, came from many different backgrounds. There were also some very strong-willed women who braved the Chilkoot Trail.

Nancy McCarthy: You've got Martha Black, you have Émilie Tremblay, you have all these women who came up to make their fortune.

FS: This is Nancy McCarthy, a curator at Parks Canada. She's worked extensively with the Dawson Historical Complex artifact collection.

NM: So you had the dance hall girls, you had the prostitutes, and then you had women who opened hotels and had legitimate businesses of their own. It wasn't just it wasn't just gold. It was to make their fortune in the town as a result of the gold rush.

FS: One reliable, though technically illegal, way of making a living in boomtown Dawson was to engage in what's colloquially known as “the world's oldest profession”.

NM: You had a lot of these men who were instant millionaires, they need something to do. So they would drink, they'd go to, bars and saloons and they wanted the company of women

FS: Sex work has a long history in resource boomtowns in North America. We spoke to historian Doctor LK Bertram from the University of Toronto about the history of brothels in the Canadian Northwest.

LK Bertram: Between about 1873 and 1914, historians agree that there was a system of sex worker prostitution economies in the Canadian West that we call vice toleration, which meant that the police created red light districts and ran them with a number of different entities, including madams, business partners, property owners.

FS: A madam is the owner and operator of a brothel.

LKB: They basically set aside these places in different towns so that people could go and spend their money. And they believe that these were essential parts of these towns and that a town without a red light district, basically was doomed to failure. People wouldn't want to stay in a town like that. A lot of people would go to the next town to spend their money.

FS: In Dawson's early days, sex workers were welcomed into the city, mostly operating in the unofficial red light district on Second Avenue. Many worked out of saloons, small private cabins or on the streets. In a few cases, a business like a laundry or a cigar store served as a front for sex work.

Here is Nancy again.

NM: They were regulated, they were medically examined once a month, I believe, and that was to stop the spread of venereal diseases and other diseases. And so they paid a fine and they didn't mind because the fine went to a charity.

FS: This fine was a bit like a licence fee, allowing sex workers to work freely. The proceeds went towards patient support at Dawson hospitals.

As the gold rush came to an end in 1899, the population drastically declined, and Dawson transitioned into a town of seasonal mine workers with families. This changed how sex workers were viewed.

NM: Dawson became more settled and businesses started opening up, wives started joining their husbands, it turned into a community. The tone is changing and they're called brazen - the brazen women. They were in an area around Second Avenue called Paradise Alley, and the business owners didn't like them hanging around. They didn't like the signs. So they started a campaign to get rid of them and it was successful.

FS: Police crackdowns and onerous fines forced sex workers out of downtown Dawson. Many moved their operations outside city limits for several years to an area across the Klondike River known at the time as Klondike City or by its more derogatory name, Lousetown.

Neither of these names were the original. The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in called it Tr'ochëk and used the area as a seasonal fishing camp for generations, until the newcomers displaced them. From mid-summer to late fall they'd harvest and dry chinook and chum salmon, treat moose and caribou skins, and prepare foods for winter storage. Today, the cultural landscape of Tr'ochëk is recognized as a National Historic Site.

As the nature of employment in Dawson shifted from small-scale independent miners to salaried employees of corporate industrial mining, the business of sex work followed a similar trajectory. The model of individuals offering their services declined, and by the 1930s, brothels, businesses headed by a madam who employed the women, became the dominant form of sex work.

Ruby's Place wasn't originally built as a brothel - constructed in 1902, after a fire destroyed most of the buildings on Second Avenue, it initially operated as a laundromat and rooming house. When you see Ruby's Place today, it fits right in with the Dawson aesthetic, and to someone who doesn't know the building's backstory, it's indistinguishable from the many mixed commercial and residential buildings that dot main streets.

Shelley Bruce: When you approach Ruby's, what you find is actually a rather handsome two story building. It's built right up against the boardwalk.

FS: This is Shelley Bruce, a built heritage advisor for Parks Canada. Shelley works to understand the history of heritage buildings, and to ensure their conservation for years to come.

SB: It has a false front design, and a false front is a really interesting form of architecture that you find in small communities and quite typically up in the north, where literally the front wall of the building extends taller than the rest of the building.

FS: A false front is a decorative facade to make a building, when viewed from the street, appear more impressive than it actually is. It's a lot cheaper and quicker than building the whole structure to a high standard.

SB: On the front elevation, you find two doors, one on the right, one on the left. It's a very symmetrical facade design. The second story consists of what are called Oriel Windows. It kind of looks like what most people would call a bay window, and it juts out from the front elevation.

FS: In 1935, Ruby Scott purchased the building.

We only know a little about Ruby's life before she arrived in Dawson. She was born Mathilde de Ligneres in northern France in the 1880s. She worked in various places, with stints in Paris, Strasbourg, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Keno City, another mining community in the Yukon. She ran brothels in at least some of these places.

Shortly after buying the building, her brothel opened for business, competing with other Dawson madams like Bombay Peggy. Ruby was a generous and lavish woman, whose larger-than-life persona became a well-known fixture of the mining town.

NM: The photos of her when she's younger, she's quite glamorous. And then as she ages, she looks like, you know, your grandmother. There's photos of her inside her house with the doilies and there's one photo in particular where she's making a cake and there's a child in the photo. She projected an image of a very warm and caring, nurturing person.

FS: We spoke to two people who grew up in Dawson, and have childhood memories of Ruby.

Marvin Dubois' grandfather moved to Dawson in 1897. 50 years later, his parents bought the Downtown Dawson Hotel, just down the street from Ruby's.

Marvin Dubois: Ruby comes into the picture like this in a very natural way. We hadn't started school yet, okay, so we were very little and Ruby was close by. She knew mom and dad and she knew us, and we knew her. And she had a little dog called Chi Chi .

FS: Marvin now lives in Belgium, but his two sisters are still in Dawson so he visits frequently. As kids, they knew there were women who worked for Ruby but weren't aware of the nature of their work . What Marvin remembers mostly is Ruby's generosity.

MD: Summertime we're all playing and somehow we learn maybe from other kids that if you bring flowers to Ruby she'd give you a chocolate bar. There were wildflowers at the right time of the summer all over the place. So we put together a big bouquet, go down the alley, and that's just where we played and knocked on her back door. And she came. We gave her the flowers. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I'm sure that she said they were just magnificent, you know, and she was forthcoming with the goods and we were as happy as can be.

FS: Lenore Calnan owns the Raven's Nook, a general store just a block away from Ruby's Place.

Lenore Calnan: Dawson was a great place to grow up. We were allowed to roam about just about anywhere you wanted to go. You were safe. Didn't have to fear of anything other than if it was wild animals.

FS: Lenore has fond memories of Ruby

LC: Ruby was a well known, liked and respected lady in the town. And as a child, we would occasionally be invited in to have tea and cookies with her. I remember her parlour, if you will, being overly decorated. It was, you know, crocheted doilies and tiny porcelain figurines everywhere. And you were deathly afraid that you might bump something over and break it. But she was just a delightful lady.

FS: Among the adults, Ruby was known for her extravagance. She often wore expensive fur coats and diamond rings - but was also incredibly giving. During the second World War, she sent care packages to Dawsonites in the armed forces. She was known as a skilled cook, and often hosted dinner parties for her neighbours, with French wines and a roast goose or turkey.

Ruby also knew how to have a good time. She'd arrive at local bars, buy a round for the house, and proclaim

Voice Actor: I make money from the boys, so I spend it with the boys!

FS: The central object of her affection was her small white pekingese dog Chi Chi. She's holding him in almost every photograph. Ruby would bring him to church, and when chi-chi died, she convinced the priest to let her bury him beside the cemetery.

While the details about Ruby's past are a bit blurry, we know even less about the women who worked for her because they were rarely mentioned in historical records.

As the madam of the house, Ruby was responsible for her employees, ranging from 2 to 8 at a time. They typically came in the spring for the mining season and left as the long, dark winter approached - though at least two stayed and married locals. Some worked for multiple years, but most were only with Ruby's Place for one season. We asked LK why so little is known about these women.

LKB: This is a really important question and there's a secret answer to it. And one of those answers is that they don't want you to know. These women hid themselves. They hid their true identities. This was like a strategy that they use to protect their futures.

And the money could be really unbelievable. The money could also be terrible. But in a society that was so unequal during this period, especially a woman who maybe had been abandoned by her husband or who had kids to support. There's no other way she can get that kind of money. And the wages that are offered to them in so called legitimate economies are starvation wages in many, many respects. And many women understood that this was really one of their only best options. And so the one thing that a lot of these women have in common is just that financial strategy. And those are the stories that you don't hear a lot about because those women hid where they went after the sex trade.

FS: We have one clue of how some of their earnings may have been spent: an artifact, a dress from the 1930s, that was uncovered in the walls of Ruby's Place during restoration work. This dress, probably repurposed as insulation, would have been in fashion during Ruby's time. It is impossible to know who wore the dress or where it was purchased, but it tells an interesting story about fashion in the North

Here's Shelley again.

SB: The dress that was found in the walls is a woman's lightweight summer dress, it looks like it's full length, short sleeves. It has a tie that would have tied around the waist. It's a lovely shade of sort of pale purple or lavender, and it's in a bit of a check pattern.

FS: The dress is labeled Billie Burke sportswear. Actress Billie Burke is best remembered for her role as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in the film The Wizard of Oz - and like many celebrities today, she had her own fashion line.

We do have a few details about two of Ruby's staff who worked there the longest - Cecile Hebit was fined $50 in a 1962 court case, leaving a trace in the city's records. Another, named Liberty, made an impression on the wife of a local RCMP officer, who remembered her as “pretty” and “nice.” She reflected:

Voice Actor: It was such a godsend to have people like that because there were so many men and that made it so much safer

FS: But Ruby's Place was much more than just a brothel. It served as a lounge where locals could get a drink and socialize. And as LK explains, brothels, or bawdy houses, like Ruby's, played another important role.

LKB: So these places were actually almost like sexual education schools. And madams, and sex workers prided themselves on this part. You know, the society that they lived in was so oppressed. And they saw their role as a humanitarian one in which they were teaching people the basics of sexuality. And some sex workers actually saw themselves as protecting other women. Often a lot of young men would go to bawdy houses for their first sexual experience. And these workers believe that if these men could get off on the right foot, if they could kind of learn a little bit about sexuality and about like the really important things also like disease prevention and birth control, that this would not only protect the men, it would also protect the women that they were with.

FS: Daily life was often quite different than the Hollywood myth of boom town sex workers

LKB: Well, it's really important not to glamorize life for most people during this period. Like, life was very difficult and sex workers, because they had this really precarious relationship to the law. The police could turn on you at any moment. A client could turn on you at any moment. It could go from being good to ok to bad all on the same day. Like when we have these memoirs of workers and madams around, they often report things like it was profoundly boring, like they would have to sit and wait for clients to show up.

FS: We don't know where these women came from, or how Ruby was able to attract new recruits each year. We also don't know if any Indigenous women worked at Ruby's, but LK thinks it's unlikely.

LKB: You know, when I tell people what I do, when I tell them, oh, I study the history of sex work in Canada, they often want to talk immediately about Indigenous women. And what they don't know is that the sex work economies in the Canadian Northwest, they were strictly segregated. Indigenous women were absolutely not permitted in most of the towns to step foot inside these establishments.

I believe that it's because prostitution economies equaled money and money equaled power at this time. And also it created this close proximity to European men that the Canadian government saw as very dangerous. They feared that if indigenous women and European men could create these kinds of bonds that, you know, a lot of people formed in bawdy houses because they were like social clubs, you would get to know people. People would fall in love sometimes. They would be business partners. If Indigenous women were doing that with European men, that could mean new political allies.

FS: In the 1930s and 40s brothels were regulated with the help of Dawson's resident doctor, Allen Duncan, who would routinely inspect the women for sexually transmitted infections. If an illness was discovered, they would be detained in a hospital.

In Dr. Duncan's memoir, Medicine, Madams and Mounties: Stories of a Yukon Doctor, he recounts the story of a man who came to see him. He told Dr. Duncan that he was hired to replace the windows at Ruby's Place. All was well when he worked on the first floor, but when it came time to replace the second-floor windows however, he couldn't help but watch some of the women as they worked - and instead of a cash payment, he opted to “spend time with the women.” Unfortunately, he caught something, leading him to Dr. Duncan's office for treatment.

By the 50s, Dawson recognized brothels as a necessary function in the community, as long as they paid a rooming house license fee. This toleration policy continued until Reverend Taylor of St. Paul's Church arrived in town. He was horrified to learn that brothels operated openly with tacit approval from the City of Dawson, and wrote to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to complain - prostitution was technically a federal offence. The resulting RCMP crackdown led to fines and charges for Ruby's, and had an undesirable effect on her bottom line.

Meanwhile the population of Dawson continued to dwindle, dipping to 881 by the early 60s. At the same time, the corporate mines began to shutter, and the influx of seasonal workers petered out. Exhausted with all of these legal and economic headwinds, Ruby decided to close her brothel after 27 years in business.

LK told us what typically happens when brothels close their doors.

LKB: When the bawdy house closes and people start to sort of like picking up whoever at the bar, then that educated element goes away. And then we see spikes in sexually transmitted infections and really serious ones and also spikes in unwed pregnancies. The fact that Ruby's survived that long shows that she was still really providing a service in this town and one that people felt was essential.

FS: Ruby reopened the building as a boarding house, and continued living there until 1969. At the age of 84, she moved into the local retirement home, where she continued to be a fixture of the community. She was described as the “unofficial hostess” for the home, dressing up for dinner every night.

Ruby passed away five years later. Throughout her time in Dawson, she became friends with the local priest, Father Marcel Bobillier, who remembered her fondly. He wrote the following entry in his journal after performing Ruby's funeral service:

Voice Actor: I put to rest the soul of my dear friend, Ruby Scott, originally from the Amiens area, who had been living in Dawson for nearly 40 years. She had turned 89 years old on the eve of her death. She was a woman with a heart of gold who I visited almost every day. I had invited her to dinner at a restaurant the week before she died. She fell in her room and broke her hip. She was transported to Whitehorse but died on the operating table. She was so well known and appreciated for her kindness that the church was nearly full. Even the American priest and the Anglican minister came to her funeral mass.

FS: While Ruby was winding down her business, and the mining industry dwindled in the early 60s, the gold rush era loomed large in Canadian mythology. Parks Canada decided to take an active role in preserving that history.

Here's our historian Karen

KR: Dawson was commemorated for its association with the Gold Rush. The Klondike gold rush was one of the last gold rushes in a series of gold rushes around the world, mainly in the 19th century.

Klondike National Historic Sites is a collection of sites in and around Dawson, Yukon. It includes Dawson Historical Complex, which is basically the historic downtown of Dawson, the SS Keno which is a river boat. And it also includes Dredge Number Four National Historic Site just outside of downtown in the Goldfields. And the last historic site there is Discovery Claim, which is the place where gold was found in 1896.

FS: Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Parks Canada purchased a representative sample of buildings to provide visitors with a sense of what Dawson was like in its heyday.

Shelley - our built heritage advisor - told us why Ruby's was included:

SB: Ruby's was chosen because it's a really unique example of a fairly typical commercial building that one would have found in Dawson during the 1896 to 1910 era. They may have a false front, which sort of makes the building appear grand and big in comparison to what's actually going on behind. So Ruby's is known as being one of those really good examples.

But the reason it's really designated is because of its most well known use, and the building is best known as a house of prostitution. And that was its primary purpose from 1935 to 1962. But, Ruby's is one of those really rare surviving examples.

FS: The ground floor consisted of a parlour, kitchen, and Ruby's personal living space. The upstairs featured three bedrooms and a bathroom, living quarters and “workspaces” for Ruby's employees.

SB: I think of some of the houses of like my aunts and my grandma at the time.

FS: Ruby's Place projected Ruby's flair for the extravagant.

SB: The main floor is essentially this riot of color and pattern and texture.The walls are painted sort of this peachy pink color. There is floral linoleum, and the furniture has any number of different types of floral patterns in like pinks and blues and whites. There's throw cushions in contrasting colors. There's a whole bunch of lamps attached to the wall and on pieces of furniture. And the riot of color just continues up on the second floor. We see a lot of floral prints on these overstuffed pieces of furniture like armchairs and couches. In the rooms for the staff, you'll see like a double bed, an armchair, a dresser, some lamps.

FS:Maintenance work has been an ongoing challenge since Parks Canada took ownership of Ruby's Place. Dawson, like much of northern Canada, is built on permafrost, meaning the ground is permanently frozen, at least, it's supposed to be

SB: So permafrost is ground which largely remains frozen over time. As the climate has changed, we have started to see a number of different effects. Temperatures are becoming warmer, and the condition of the permafrost is of concern because as temperature rises, the ground is not able to stay frozen in the same way or for as long.

FS: A building with a shifting foundation isn't likely to stay standing in the long run, so in 2018 Parks Canada began a conservation project to mitigate the issues caused by thawing permafrost.

Ruby's Place was temporarily moved, and the wood foundation was replaced by piles, a network of posts drilled deep into the ground to the bedrock below. The permafrost layer will move and shift with time, but the bedrock should be a solid anchor.

During this conservation work, several items were found in the walls of the building, including the dress we mentioned earlier, and a newspaper, a 1906 edition of the San Francisco Examiner. It could be a remnant of Ruby's time in San Francisco, or possibly the reading material from one of the women, but in a way, it's a fitting homage to the sensationalist journalism that kicked off the stampede to Dawson in the first place

Voice Actor: Sacks of gold from the Klondike!

FS: Today, the exterior of Ruby's Place looks much like it did in its golden years, only lifted a few extra feet off the ground, with a new staircase to mask the piles. It's not open for visitors, but there is a large window display that tells the illustrious story of the site.

Ruby's Place and the legacy of Ruby Scott continue to shine in Dawson.

KR: I think it's really important to preserve Ruby's Place because it speaks to a kind of work that was always present in Dawson, that was female dominated and mostly female run. And there are so few records of these women who worked as sex workers. And Ruby's is one place where we can experience a little bit of their story, even if they didn't leave a lot of records behind.

FS: Parks Canada conserves nearly two dozen buildings around Dawson. In a northern boom town where many residents stayed only a few years, these places are a tangible reminder of their presence, their hard work, their joys and their struggles.

SB: Without protecting these buildings, the streetscapes would be very, very different. You would not have a sense of what that frontier rustic boomtown experience would have been.

FS: It's important to remember that the Dawson area has a history that long predates the frenzy of the Gold Rush era.

KR: It's also an important place in what we would now call the history of colonialism. The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in have recently put forward a UNESCO nomination for Dawson and some other nearby sites to be a World Heritage site, with the reasoning being that Dawson and these sites represent an important stage in human history, which is the indigenous experience of an adaptation to European colonialism. So it's a site that means a lot of different things to different people. And one of the things we're trying to do at Parks is tell a bigger variety of those stories than we have told in the past.

FS: Dawson City is located 525 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse. There are flights to Dawson airport year-round - or you can drive if you fancy a long road trip - it's about 27 hours from Edmonton, Alberta.

The Klondike National Historic Sites are open to visitors year round, but most events and tours are offered from May through September.

ReCollections is produced by Parks Canada. A big thank you to Nancy McCarthy, Karen Routledge, Shelley Bruce, Marvin Dubois, Lenore Calnan, Jeff Thorsteinson, Dylan Meyerhoffer and Dr. LK Bertram. For a deeper dive, Dr. Bertram has an article about sex work in Canadian boomtowns in the Journal of Social History called “The Other Little House”.

For loads of extras, including a Google Arts and Culture exhibition with photos of historic Dawson and Ruby's place please take a look at the show notes or visit parks.canada.ca/recollections. We've also got a self-guided driving tour of the Dawson area as part of Parks Canada's Mobile Guided Tour app

I'm your host, Fred Sheppard. Thanks for listening.

Bibliography

Published Sources

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  • McCarthy, Nancy. “Scope of Collection Statement: Moveable Resources Associated with Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site of Canada.” Curatorial and Collections Section, Parks Canada, 2008.
  • Real Property Services, Heritage Conservation Network, Western Region. “Heritage Recording Report: Ruby's Place Dawson City Building Complex, Dawson City, Yukon - Project Number R.014745.030.” Winnipeg: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2011.
  • Thorsteinson, Jeffrey. “Ruby's Place Cabins, Dawson City, Yukon.” Supplemental report to FHBRO Building Report 88-12. Parks Canada, 2019.

Primary Sources

  • Quotes about Ruby from Father Marcel Bobillier's Journals. Yukon Archives. Father Marcel Bobilier fonds. 88/43. Journal XV. 30 June 1974.
Gwaii Haanas: The Living Landscapes of SG̱ang Gwaay

How can a storm literally uproot history?

In this episode, we'll travel to the Pacific Northwest islands of Haida Gwaii, home to the Haida Nation for more than 13,000 years. Our focus: a collaborative archaeology project at an evacuated village on the remote island of SG̱ang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that was devastated by hurricane-force winds in a 2018 storm. Many voices tell the rich history of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

Special thanks to consulting producer Camille Collinson.

Learn more:

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

Transcript

FS: In November 2018, a devastating storm from the Pacific Ocean with hurricane-force winds made landfall on the islands of Haida Gwaii, the homeland of the Haida Nation.

James Maguire: One of the Supernaturals from the southeast sent one of his minions out, broke the tops of a lot of these trees out, and created a lot of tree throws. It felt like a tragedy, like one of the most sacred sites that I know on Haida Gwaii had taken some damage.

FS: The damage to the village site on SG̱ang Gwaay island was shocking - massive trees lay scattered around like pick-up sticks on the mossy ground, their roots exposed to the elements for the first time in well over a century. It looked like a total disaster…

JM: But in the face of tragedy, you can work something out to make the best of the situation.

FS: I'm your host Fred Sheppard and you're listening to ReCollections - The Living Landscapes of SG̱ang Gwaay.

Parks Canada is known world-wide as a leader in nature conservation, but we do much more than that. Together with our partners, we commemorate the people, places, and events that have shaped what we now call Canada. Join us to meet experts from across the country as we explore the sites, stories and artifacts that bring history to life.

In this episode, we'll discuss injustices inflicted upon Indigenous peoples. Listener discretion is advised. For our indigenous listeners, the Hope for Wellness Help Line is available at 1-855 242-3310 or hopeforwellness.ca

Today, we're going to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site off the north coast of BC to learn more about a new collaborative archaeology project on the island of SG̱ang Gwaay.

This episode was made in collaboration with Gwaii Haanas Cultural Resources Advisor Camille Collinson, who, as a member of the Haida Nation, has helped us understand and incorporate the rich Haida worldviews, as well as ongoing conversations about challenges and resilience in Haida Gwaii communities.

But first, let's talk about the Haida language, and the place names you'll hear throughout this episode. Haida is considered an endangered language with very few fluent speakers left, but it was once spoken throughout the islands of Haida Gwaii - which translates to the Islands of the Haida people. Gwaii Haanas, the protected area means Islands of Beauty, and SGaang Gwaay is Wailing Island. You've probably noticed a common factor - Gwaii, meaning island, is a very important word in this part of the world!

Haida Gwaii is an archipelago, a chain of over 150 islands around 700km north of Vancouver and separated from the mainland by the shallow Hecate Strait. Gwaii Haanas protects the southern two-thirds of the archipelago, from seafloor to mountain top.

These rocky islands enjoy a lot of precipitation, and their temperate rainforests are covered in carpets of green moss and ferns towered over by huge trees like sitka spruce, red cedar and hemlock.

We will never do justice to describing the majesty of this place. Instead, here's someone who knows it well.

JM: Picture yourself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean right now. Waves crashing all over the place, and you think you're lost and you think you've gone as far as the earth will provide you. And then on the horizon, a little rock sticks out of the ocean that the supernaturals left there.

And, you get closer to that rock and the ocean and you realize it's a series of rocks in the ocean. And on that series of rocks in the ocean, is this lush and beautiful forest and… and a Galapagos-esque style, natural wonder and diverse ecosystems. And on that, for all eternity of time, the Haida people have existed alongside. And so we are as much part of that forest and that ocean and the sky as the tree and as the eagles and ravens. And from the dawn of what we understand as existence we have moved and worked with and worked alongside and been fed and and and have fed the ecosystem of this place.

My name is SGaan Kwahagang. My English name is James Maguire. I'm of the Skidans Ravens clan.

FS: James works with the artifact collections at the Haida Gwaii Museum.

SG̱ang Gwaay - once briefly known as Anthony Island - is located in the south-west of Haida Gwaii. It's home to the village of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Llnagaay means ‘village.' This village has been evacuated since the 1880s, and what remains today are mortuary poles and remnants of wooden longhouses.

Mortuary poles are red cedar logs carved with images of animals and supernaturals, to honour a high ranking person like a chief or matriarch after they've passed. The remains are placed in a burial box in a cavity at the top of the pole, which is raised to stand about 15 meters above the ground.

You might be familiar with the term ‘totem pole', but the Haida prefer talking about the specific type of carved pole, like mortuary poles, house poles and memorial poles.

Paul Rosang: I'm Paul Rosang. I'm from Skidegate. My Haida name is [spelling unknown for Haida name], which means Wolfman in English translation. And my role is pretty much to give people information about the place.

FS: Paul is a guardian at SG̱ang Gwaay, and was the first to return after the 2018 storm. He arrived to a scene of unrecognizable destruction: Hundreds of trees, many of them coastal giants, lay criss-crossed on top of each other, root systems ripped out of the earth, with some roots reaching as high as a 3-storey building.

PR: It was like landing on the moon.

Just to come out on the back beach and see that amount of trees down at once, it felt like I was in a totally different place, it wasn't the same anymore

FS: A visitor shelter was completely flattened, and a boardwalk was dangling from the trees.

PR:It looked like the old wooden roller coaster in Vancouver. It was like, wow.

FS: But what a visitor might view as devastation, or James might see as a visit from a supernatural, an archaeologist recognizes as a unique opportunity.

SGang Gwaay is one of several Haida cultural sites open to visitors. Since the early 1990s, its poles have been visited by thousands, but out of respect for the village's importance, archaeology work has been limited. Until now.

Camille Collinson : It definitely gives us a chance to sort of explore SG̱ang Gwaay in a way that hasn't really been looked at in the past.

From an archaeological standpoint, SG̱ang Gwaay hasn't had any excavation units done in it aside from when they straightened the poles.

My name is Camille Collinson, I am a cultural resource management advisor for Gwaii Haanas.

FS: the village was evacuated nearly a century and a half ago, tree roots have grown around the decaying floorboards of Haida longhouses. When the trees fell and the root systems were raised high in the sky, the floorboards were exposed, providing a glimpse into the history of this fascinating place.

Here's Jenny Cohen, the lead Parks Canada archaeologist working at SG̱ang Gwaay.

Jenny Cohen: All in all, over 100 trees came down in and around the village and we started an emergency archaeology program to salvage the vulnerable exposed artifacts.

FS:The result: the Living Landscapes of SG̱ang Gwaay archaeology project, a multi-year collaboration between the Haida Nation, the Haida Gwaii Museum and the Government of Canada.

JC: So, nature has created disturbance, and it actually allowed us this window to look in and see what is in the sediment.

FS: SG̱ang Gwaay is one of hundreds of villages that line the shores of Haida Gwaii, where the Haida people have lived for a very long time. Archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement from more than 13,000 years ago, but the Haida presence on the archipelago likely goes back even further.

We spoke to the executive director of the Haida Gwaii museum to learn more about the origins of the Haida people.

Nika Collison: Good morning. My name is Jisgang. My English name is Nika Collison. I am Haida from the [spelling unknown for Haida name] clan.

Today's Haida weren't the first iteration of human beings that [spelling unknown for Haida name] taught us, that the first time humans arrived, they came out of the air. And we didn't quite make it. But the supernatural beings were there. The second time we came was out of the earth. And again. Things happened. The [spelling unknown for Haida name] were still there, but we weren't the ones for today. And then the third time humans arrived was out of the ocean. And that is the people of today. We come from supernatural beings that came out of the ocean and over many generations became more human. To bring us to today.

FS: To better understand the human history of Haida Gwaii, a good place to start is with the dynamic interplay of land and sea, both on the archipelago and on the mainland of North America.

Our archaeologist Jenny, again.

JC: In Haida Gwaii, sea levels were about one hundred and fifty meters lower at about 14,000 years ago

During the last Ice Age, there's a lot of ice buildup on the continent, which actually kind of weighted down that landform.

And if you think about the Earth's crust under a molten core, it's kind of like a water bed. So if you put pressure in one area it bulges up another area. So, Haida Gwaii was kind of that area that got elevated. So, relative sea levels here were much lower when they were much higher on the continent, which was being pushed down.

As glacial ice melted on the continent, basically the continental landform rose in relation to sea levels. Haida Gwaii started falling because that pressure was taken off. At the same time, there's other factors like the amount of water in the ocean. So all this ice would have been locked up in the glaciers

FS: When the Ice Age came to an end around 10,000 years ago, sea levels began rising as much of that glacial ice melted.

JC: They actually transgressed and went about 15 metres above modern and kind of stayed there for about 4000 years. And then for the past six thousand years, they've been slowly dropping.

FS: The key takeaway is that over the millennia, sea levels on the islands have been both higher and much lower than where they are today.

One constant through all these sea changes has been the presence of the Haida people.

The Haida relied on the land and sea. An abundance of salmon, shellfish, and other sea life provided food security, and allowed for healthy populations and long-term villages.

They developed relationships with other First Nations up and down the Pacific coast, enabled by ocean-going canoes carved out of giant red cedar trees.

At SG̱ang Gwaay, evidence of humans goes back a long way.

Here's Camille with more.

CC: Human occupation on SG̱ang Gwaay dates back to 10,700 years. And in between then and the present, there are a lot of time gaps in between. It would be really interesting to see how we could fill in those gaps,

FS: As far as we know from Haida knowledge holders and archaeologists, SG̱ang Gwaay was used repeatedly as a seasonal hunting and fishing camp for the last 5400 years. Somewhere around 100 AD, the village was built and then continuously inhabited until the late 1800's. That's 1700 years, over 10 times as long as Canada has been a country!

Ki'iljuus:It was a hunting site. So people camped there to begin with and so they would hunt the sea lions, the birds, the seals and probably the sea otters, the whole of the islands waters were very full of resources

My Haida name is Ki'iljuus and I am part of the [spelling unknown for Haida name]. That's the name of my clan. It's an Eagle clan.

FS: Ki'iljuus worked in Gwaii Haanas for many years, and has held various leadership roles within the Haida community.

K: For three years, I was elected to the Council of the Haida Nation, So it was very nice, and I brought up different things that the hereditary leaders had asked us to do and looked at how we could make things better in being stewards of the land.

FS: SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay is on the east side of the island. It's a prime location for a village, on a large bay protected by a small island about 10 metres away. Longhouses surrounded the main bay, allowing for easy canoe access in and out. A secondary bay to the south provided an alternate access when weather or tides were better on that side of the island.

Paul Rosang and his wife Aretha Edgars are the watchmen at SG̱ang Gwaay. They spend five to six months of the year living at the village site and are traditional knowledge holders, explaining the village's significance to visitors.

The watchmen program was developed to keep an eye on important cultural sites throughout Haida Gwaii, and is based on a historical role in Haida villages. Traditionally, Watchmen were posted at strategic positions to raise alarm when enemies approached. If you look at the very top of Haida poles, there are often three human figures wearing tall cedar bark hats - the symbol of the watchmen.

Paul described what village life in SG̱ang Gwaay may have been like when the longhouses were filled with people..

PR: So with the archaeological crew actually being there, it's kind of cool because you get all these paths that get worn, so people walking back and forth between different sites. So that gives you a real good idea of what it probably looked like when it was occupied, like…. And then to hear all that activity going on in the village, it gives me kind of goosebumps right now. And I try and tell my guests when you go there, to try and picture the place with 300 people. So there are kids on the beach running around. You got people that are doing fish or prepping food or carving a pole or doing just daily activities. So you'd imagine what it sounded like. That's what a village sounds like.

FS: Here's Jenny with an archaeologist's take on SG̱ang Gwaay village.

JC: So the village itself has 17 recorded house remains that are still visible and measurable on the ground, but through ethnographic records, there were 20 houses that were discussed and talked about, so they're known. So the village has two rows of houses. One row that's closer to the ocean and then one that's on a back raised terrace and overlooking the bay. There's also a water reservoir, so a waterway that runs through as a freshwater source and to the south of the village is large, flat area. That's pretty clear, and that would have been a cultivation area for potatoes and tobacco. And there's also remnants of domestic apples on site, too. So in addition to the native crab apples, so there's various degrees of vegetation management, and there's still remnants of that on site today.

FS: In 1774, the first European ship, captained by Juan Perez of Spain, arrived on the shores of Haida Gwaii.

This meeting led to a series of nation-to-nation trade relationships, first with the Spanish and then with the British, Russians, and eventually the United States. The Haida supplied Europeans with animal furs, and artwork like jewelry and carvings, while Europeans traded metals, guns, alcohol and food like flour and sugar.

One of the main trade items was sea otter pelts. A strong demand in Europe meant the Haida could negotiate high prices. Over the next few decades, sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction, which led to a domino effect on the marine environment, including a hyper-abundance of sea urchins that were no longer eaten by otters. All those urchins ate a vast amount of kelp, a giant seaweed that forms an ecosystem known as kelp forests. In some places, the kelp disappeared completely, creating an urchin barren, something like an undersea desert. Today, with a little help from biologists, both sea otters and kelp forests are returning to Haida Gwaii.

By the mid 1800s, other resources, like minerals, seafood, whales and timber became the focus.

As Europeans met with the Haida, diseases like typhoid, measles and smallpox spread throughout the archipelago. This, along with the collapse of the sea otter trade, led to a gradual decline of SG̱ang Gwaay's population.

Then, in 1862, the most deadly wave of smallpox swept through the archipelago and much of coastal BC.

Here's Nika to describe this dark time.

NC : So before 1862, our oral historians have taught me that there was anywhere from 30 to 50000 Haida.

And so in 1862, colonists knowingly spread smallpox along the coast. This is documented by the colonists themselves, as is the fact that they withheld vaccines specifically from the Haida, from our people.

When the illness is so thick in your village that there's a blue haze as people are dying. You can see it in the air. And you're being basically told you're not human.

The survivors of SG̱ang Gwaay. There's only about 30 of them, which is less than a household left there. And they moved up in the later 1800s because all the main villages the survivors had to join together in either Skidegate or Masset.

K: When people died off like that, I often talk about it being like a fire in a library. So think of your library downstairs and having a big fire and you had 30,000 books. And some are manuscripts, some are just proposals, some are books and knowledge, some are periodicals, some are just textbooks or just stories. But that's what happens when you kill off people. You destroy their library, and that's what happened to us. And so when the haze dissipates, you're left with less than 600 people.

FS: In just a couple of generations, the series of epidemics decimated the Haida population, taking a horrendous toll on their culture and their way of life. The 600 displaced survivors eventually regrouped in two villages in northern Haida Gwaii, where the majority of Haida people live today.

Another major blow to the Haida people came in the form of the federal Indian Act of 1876.

K: First for thousands and thousands of years, the things we learned was because we're island people, ocean people. Our laws were all oral, they weren't written anywhere. But when you have a law in place for thousands of years, it just becomes a part of how you live with your land and your water. And because Europeans could not see our laws, they said we had no laws. They put their laws on top of us. And they had the Indian Act and that became part of how they controlled us and kept us in one place.

FS: The Indian Act was an attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples across Canada into colonial society. It banned traditional cultural practices and languages and required families to send their children to residential schools. Many Haida children were sent to St. Michael's school in Alert Bay, about 500km away.

On Haida Gwaii, reserves for the Haida were created around the two main villages of Skidegate and Masset, a tiny fraction of their homeland. The pass system, which made it mandatory for Indigenous peoples to obtain written permission to leave their reserve, restricted access to most of their traditional territory and cultural sites.

The rest of the lands and waters of Haida Gwaii were sold into private hands or expropriated by the government.

The Indian Act is still on the federal books, but many amendments over the years have loosened restrictions on Indigenous culture, and restored freedom of movement around traditional territory.

The years since have seen a resurgence of Haida culture, rebuilding connections with traditions and language. Governments have also made major improvements in listening to Haida knowledge when deciding how to manage the lands and waters - including the creation of protected areas.

In the 70s and 80s, logging was planned on Athlii Gwaii –then called Lyell Island - despite being part of an area proposed for protection. Fed up with government inaction to stop the logging, a group of Haida took a stand by blockading forestry roads. Things came to a head in 1985 when 72 Haida people, including elders, were arrested. Eventually an agreement between Canada and BC paved the way for protecting Gwaii Haanas under the National Parks Act.

K: And they they got to a point where the feds wanted to make it a national park. And our people that were at the negotiating table said, we don't want a national park. We know what happens to people who live within the context of a national park and how they can't use the land. We want to use our land. It was kind of a turning point.

FS: These concerns were heard and the result was the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a commitment to protect the area while ensuring the Haida can engage in traditional activities throughout the lands and waters of Gwaii Haanas.

CC: When Gwaii Haanas was established back in 1993, it was established by the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation. Both parties argue that “No, I own this land” and they agree to disagree. Instead of arguing with each other about who owns the land, they came together to co-operatively manage this area. We always try to stay true to the Gwaii Haanas Agreement and that we make sure that we involve members of the Haida community because this is Haida territory we're standing on. And it's important to always honour that in our work and to always work in good faith with each other.

FS: The Gwaii Haanas Agreement is still in effect today, and includes SG̱ang Gwaay as part of the national park reserve. Since 1981, SG̱ang Gwaay has also been both a National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The first thing you see when you enter the main bay of SG̱ang Gwaay is a beach, covered in pebbles, broken seashells, and sea-battered driftwood. The beach gives way to tall green grass and even greener moss, with cedar-hemlock forests looming in the distance. Rising from the grass are dozens of weathered mortuary poles, featuring cascades of carved animal faces that tell stories of long ago. Behind the rows of poles are mossy depressions outlining the longhouses where the 300 villagers took shelter from the elements. A series of white clam shells placed on the ground form a path for visitors to keep a respectful distance from the fragile remains of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay.

CC: SG̱ang Gwaay is just a beautiful showcase of Haida material culture, the architecture, and the art. It's also a showcase of the stories too, the poles which are still standing tell a great story of the people who lived here, the clan stories and significant environmental events.

FS: The Haida consider this place more than a village site, since the remains of so many ancestors and their spirits reside here. Everyone seems to sense this deep importance. Many find it impossible to describe the experience of spending time at SG̱ang Gwaay … but two of our experts were willing to try.

Barb: It was absolutely spellbinding.

FS: Ki'iljuus described her first time on the island.

K: I came in on the little float plane and I got off and you look up and you see these silvery things in amongst the green trees,, you know, spectacular. Because I'd never been to a village, an old village that had poles standing. I brought my youngest son. He was two. I brought him with me. And we spent the day there. It was very special.

PR: The moment… first time I've ever been a Watchmen there, just walking into that village. It's just the sense of…. I can't even put it into words. It's the feeling you get when you're there. It's very welcoming. It's just a sense of belonging there, really.

It's just I've been there for so long. It's just I call that my home

FS: That's Paul again - he's been a watchman on SG̱ang Gwaay for over 15 years.

He explained what SG̱ang Gwaay means in the Haida language.

PR: It's Wailing Island. It's a woman wailing crying.

FS: When things are just right, the wind makes the wailing sound when blowing through a hole in a rock.

PR : So the tides got to be at the right level. The wind's got to be blowing the right way. So all these combinations and all these different elements that have to be perfect… but that's what it sound s like, is a woman crying at a distance and I've only heard it twice.

It's definitely somebody mourning. It definitely… make your hair stand up.

FS: Part of Paul's role as a Watchman is to give tours of SG̱ang Gwaay:

PR: So I'll just give you a lowdown on the village that there was 20 long houses here at one time, probably about 300 people. So if you look down in the bay, you could see its big horseshoe there with all those nice poles. But every one of the poles used to be seen here in mortuary poles.So there's five different kinds. You've got the beautiful house frontal pole, and you got that mortuary pool with the big cavity at the top where the chief's remains would be put in the top of the pool.

FS: The storm dramatically changed the village landscape, though work crews have since removed much of the debris. Amazingly, the damage to poles and house-remains was minimal.

PR: Over 245 trees that came down in this one storm. So trees that are huge, like four or five feet at the butt, big spruce. So once one tree starts to go, it's just a big effect. Like it destroyed lots of stuff but to not touch anything in the village. Definitely makes you feel like something, somebody watching over that place.

JC:This is like one of the few moments in my life where it literally took my breath away and it was hard to breathe.

FS: That's Jenny, telling us about her first visit after the storm.

JC: How much it had changed and how destructive it felt with all these trees lying on the ground, with their branches just covering all these features and the poles were kind of drowned in this chaos of vegetation. The roots were lifted up, and some of them were, you know, 10 meters tall, just towering over my head. It just made everything feel so small and so exposed and vulnerable.

FS: The Living Landscapes project launched shortly after, aiming for a deeper understanding of Haida resource use and management over the millenia. The findings will guide the long-term goal of restoring the island's eco-cultural landscape.

The initial focus was excavating the root balls that lifted the floorboards of two longhouses. A root ball is the root system of a tree plus all the dirt and debris that came up with it.

Much of that archaeology work has centred around House 10

JC: We just call it House 10 for short, but it has a name and it's called People Wish to be There house.

And so these houses all had names in the village, and not all of them are remembered, but this is one of them. So, People Wish To Be There House is kind of in the middle of the village.

FS: House 10 was a typical Haida longhouse. The beams and posts were made from large cedar poles, and the walls, floor and roof from cedar planks. The front featured a frontal pole with carvings of an eagle, a cormorant, a whale, and three watchmen keeping an eye on things from the top. A rounded door built into the bottom of the pole was the main way in and out of the house. An opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape from an interior fire pit. There were bunk beds and shelves throughout the interior, and food was kept beneath the house for cold storage.

House 10's frontal pole was removed in the 1930s, part of a wider trend of outsiders taking objects from Indigenous cultural sites. One reason for the Watchman program is to prevent this kind of behavior. Repatriating artifacts is an ongoing project for the Haida Gwaii museum.

JC: Before the storm, the house was really not that well defined. You can see where there's multiple house beams from the roof and they look just like moss covered logs and a few standing posts that were leaning. At the time. everything was covered in moss.

FS: After the storm, the house remains changed quite dramatically.

JC: So at House 10, there are two tree throws, root balls, that were in the house directly. And so these basically… expose the sediment of the house floor.

And so what we did this past year was to excavate into that root ball.

Standing next to this tree throw, the root ball, it's towering over my head. So we had to use a ladder to reach some of these higher parts of the root ball.

FS: James, from the Haida Gwaii Museum, assisted and advised Jenny's team.

JM: I had gone down for a nine day stint down in the field to get up to date about the things that had been identified and providing context to things as they come out of the ground, providing a cultural understanding to what we're looking at, you know, the village that we're in.

We have an opportunity in this one to do a little bit more bridge-gapping in the knowledge between oral histories and technologies to identify where other older sites might be.

FS: The team uncovered numerous artifacts from House 10. One intriguing find was some Haida artwork - two fist-sized pieces of a jet black stone called argillite.

JC: Going back to these floorboards, I saw this rock wedge between the two and thought, Well, OK, here's another fire crack rock. But then I took a closer look and there is this little groove a little notch out of it, which is really unusual. And as I pulled it out, I saw that that groove is actually carved out and it was part of an eyeball that was carved in this little figure. And so we just saw the back corner of this eye and a little bit of the shoulder of this figure. And on that shoulder, there's a really intricate detail work.

The face was missing from this piece, though, and it looked like the rock had cracked off. One of those finds where it kind of took my breath away a little bit. Everything got really quiet and everyone knew something really cool was being found. And then the next day there was this flat rock right next to this large sea mammal bone. And as we pulled it out, it revealed a nose and two eyes, and it fit perfectly with the back piece.

FS: Argillite is a type of sedimentary rock that's basically compressed clay. It's found on a single mountain in northern Haida Gwaii - and nowhere else in the world. Today, the Haida have exclusive rights to the quarry.

When polished, argillite has a uniquely beautiful black sheen. Over the past century, carvings by renowned Haida artists like Charles Edenshaw, Claude Davidson, and Bill Reid have been featured in museums and galleries around the world.

With a broad aesthetic appeal, argillite carvings were an important trade item for the Haida

Here's James's take on the carving.

JM: There's quite famous argillite carvers that do come from SG̱ang Gwaay. Chief Ninstints. was one of the last survivors of that village and ended up becoming quite a famous argillite carver. But at the time that village was at the height of power, population and prosperity, it wasn't a widely practiced thing throughout all Haida existence.

Argillite carving is a direct descendant of reacting to colonial empire control. The popularity of argillite carving comes from it being deemed an acceptable art form to sell at a Victorian market.

FS: Another interesting find from House 10 was a collection of seeds from edible berries and medicinal plants.

JC: Under the floor too, there is… in these black silts, a couple concentrations of like really dense seed concentrations. So these seeds wouldn't have just gone there naturally. They're too large and too concentrated.

FS: It's possible that villagers kept a seed bank to grow plants for food and medicine.

James suggested another possible explanation.

JM: Many different types of seeds, all in a layer stacked on top of each other, would have been, you know, berries or jams that were dehydrated, maybe, and then wrapped in like traditional kind of saran wrap, which would be skunk cabbage and then layered up underneath in like a cellar system, which is right under the floorboard of the longhouse.

FS: Skunk cabbage is a wetland plant with broad waxy leaves. It gets its evocative name from the smell of its vibrant yellow flowers, attractive to pollinators with a taste for rotting meat.

JM: I was thinking it's just stacks of berries that had been dehydrated and then would have been wrapped in skunk cabbage, and then this cabbage over 120 years disintegrated and just the seeds of the different types of berries had been left in piles and layers of different types.

You know, stacking them in preparation for consumption over the darker months when they weren't growing. And in an expectation that you were going to be consuming them. You know, the sad thing is they never got to be consumed.

FS: There are other artifacts that speak to the time when SG̱ang Gwaay was home to approximately 300 people, including glass beads, pieces of metal, buttons, pipes and bottles. Some would have been produced on site or nearby. Others were created far away, the result of a trade network that connected Haida Gwaii with Asia, Europe and beyond.

JM: This is really fun to picture in different times and different eras I really love seeing a button that I could have on my blanket, coming out of a floorboard in a longhouse that one of my friend's ancestors could have been dancing and it fell off, and here we are, today, picking up.

FS: The newly-recovered artifacts from SG̱ang Gwaay are being stored at the Haida Gwaii Museum for analysis and safe keeping. Over the next few years, the Living Landscapes team will conserve these objects and the field work will continue.

JC: We're looking at extending the excavation at House 10. So we get that bigger picture of house activity. We're also looking at a couple of other houses in the village that were impacted.

FS: The team also hopes to learn more about the earliest human history of the island.

JC: Going out of the immediate village and looking inland on these raised beach sites when sea levels were higher, that would have been the shoreline and people might have been located in those locations. There is one of those raised beach sites that we have identified already and we've dated it and it's about 5000 years old. So part of the plan is to go back to that site and do a small, limited excavation and compare that with how people were living in these more recent times.

JM: When we're sifting through the floorboards and a glass bead comes up or a button comes up, you know, that would have been on a blanket during a potlatch. These are the things that we do today and when we're able to witness the continuity of culture, and we're able to bridge those gaps between us, we don't feel so foreign. Colonialism made us feel foreign in our own territories … in a lot of ways made everything that we did illegal in our territory. So, we were meant to feel that way. So we're in this kind of era of reclaiming and reconnection and repatriation in our own minds.

FS: One amazing aspect of this collaborative project is the opportunity for everyone involved to learn from each other.

JC: I'm learning a lot from the Watchmen and local Haida, about carving techniques, about oral tradition, the knowledge of the people who have lived here in the past, their histories and how the knowledge gets passed on. Learning about maybe alternate uses, so you see a lot of historic items that were maybe trade items and they might have been repurposed, not in the way that it was intended by, say, Europeans who traded those goods, but then repurposed for Haida, and their own interests.

JM: I'm excited to move forward from this year, having met the crew, having met the people that we are going to be working with. I'm excited to invite them into our facility and work with them to analyze the findings, and build a more pointed timeline scientifically to match up with our very detailed timeline with oral history.

FS:The collaborative nature of this project is reflective of the cooperative management y of Gwaii Haanas as a whole. When the Gwaii Haanas Agreement was negotiated, it was the first of its kind. It worked so well that today it serves as a model for newer cooperatively managed sites across Canada.

CC: You know, it's not easy to work collaboratively, a lot of times, but I feel like it's the most constructive way to work. I think we do our best work when we do collaborate. It requires a lot of communication, sometimes it requires some disagreements. But I think it's the most important aspect of our work - to ensure that we always collaborate with the Haida community. It's always so important to bring everybody together because we're all here for the common goal and that is to take care of Gwaii Haanas.

FS: One of the challenges of doing that is climate change, and the rising sea levels that may be coming. The Haida people, though, are resilient – they've been dealing with huge sea changes on Haida Gwaii for at least 13,700 years.

One thing we can confidently say won't stand the test of time, is the remains of the longhouses and poles at SGaang Gwaay Llnagaay, and that's part of the management plan. In keeping with Haida tradition, they will be allowed to return back to the earth.

K: My thought process is that everything came from the earth. So it has to go back to the earth. And so that's part of respect and responsibility.

JC: The takeaway is to allow it to go back to nature. But, you know, allowing non-invasive interventions to slow that process is OK, … a lot of these structures are made out of wood, a lot of the material will decompose and it's not meant to last forever.

JM: We need to breathe more life into these villages as the reminders and the lessons of the past go back to their natural resting places. It's our responsibility, I think, to bring back new life to these villages, and raise more poles, bring more life back, feast them and throw new beads on the ground for archaeologists 500 years in the future to find, and see the continuity of our culture from 15,000 years ago all the way down to today. We're coming out of a really dark period in our history, we have now an opportunity to shine some light on these areas that we hold so sacred.

K: It's a beautiful, beautiful paradise for me, I see the beauty in spite of the woundedness. I know a lot of the stories and it reminds me of the people who came before me, and how blessed I am to be part of the land, the ocean and the people.

FS: A visit to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, is a bit of an undertaking, as any trip of a lifetime probably should be. The first step is taking a ferry or plane – or your own boat – to Haida Gwaii. There are several licensed tour operators who can arrange transport from there.

Travelers require a trip permit and need to attend an orientation session to explore Gwaii Haanas and SG̱ang Gwaay. You can visit sites independently or with a guided tour. Trip options range from a single day to a week or longer, and can include hiking, kayaking and visiting cultural sites.

The Council of Haida Nation asks all visitors to take the Haida Gwaii Pledge, at haidagwaiipledge.ca

ReCollections is produced by Parks Canada. Our consulting producer is [spelling unknown for Haida name] Camille Collinson. Big thank you to Jisgang Nika Collison, SGaan Kwahagang James McGuire, K'iiljuus, [spelling unknown for Haida name] Paul Rosang, Jenny Cohen, Daryl Fedje, Gid yahk'ii Sean Young, Stephanie Fung, the Saahlinda Naay / Haida Gwaii Museum and the Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board.

To get the latest on the Living Landscapes archaeology project, follow the Gwaii Haanas Facebook page.

You can also visit parks.canada.ca/recollections for show notes and a documentary video of the Living Landscapes project.

I'm Fred Sheppard, thanks for listening.

Bibliography

Publications

  • Acheson, Steven. ““Ninstints” Village: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” BC Studies 67 (autumn 1985): 47-56.
  • Boyd, Robert. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874. Vancouver: UBC Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.
  • Clayton, Daniel. Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000.
  • Collison, Jisgang Nika. Athlii Gwaii - Upholding Haida Law at Lyell Island. Vancouver: Locarno Press, 2018.
  • Council of the Haida Nation. “Haida Land Use Vision, Haida Gwaii Yah'guudang [respecting Haida Gwaii].” Haida Gwaii, 2005. https://www.haidanation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/HLUV.lo_rez.pdf
  • Duff, Wilson and Michael Kew. “Anthony Island, A Home of the Haidas. Province of British Columbia, Department of Education, Report of the Provincial Museum 1957, 37-63.
  • Fedje, Daryl and Rolf Mathewes. Haida Gwaii Human History and Environment from the Time of the Loon to the Time of the Iron People. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.
  • The Great Bear Rainforest Education and Awareness Trust. “The Fur Trade Era, 1770s-1849.” Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, n.d. https://greatbearrainforesttrust.org/backgrounders/
  • Kalman, Hal. A History of Canadian Architecture: Volume 1. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • MacDonald, George F. Haida Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
  • Swanky, Tom. Canada's “War” of Extermination on the Pacific. British Columbia: Dragon Heart, 2012.
  • Swanky, Tom. The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory. British Columbia: Dragon Heart, 2016.

Websites

News Articles

Government Documents

  • Archipelago Management Board. “Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site: 2007 State of the Protected Area Report.” Haida Gwaii, 2007.
  • Council of the Haida Nation and Parks Canada. Gwaii Haanas Gina 'Waadluxan KilGuhlGa Land-Sea-People Management Plan. Haida Gwaii, 2018. https://www.haidanation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Gwaii-Haanas-LSP-Plan-2018_EN_lowres.pdf
  • Dick, Lyle. “The Maritime Fur Trade in Southern Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), ca. 1787-1920” Parks Canada, Western and Northern Service Centre, 2005.
  • Haida Nation and Parks Canada. Gwaii Haanas Visitor Guide. 2021. https://parks.canada.ca/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/-/media/6FADD508B2EE4A02A2E11881A918AC64.ashx
  • MacDonald, George. “The Haida Village of Ninstints, Queen Charlotte Islands. Report and recommendations to the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.” HSMBC, Supplementary Agenda Paper 1981-SUC(P).
Grosse Île: The Quarantine Island

Not many national historic sites begin their origin story with a catastrophic volcanic eruption…

For over a century, an unassuming island in the St. Lawrence River played a major role in the immigration journey from Europe to North America. A scene of hope and tragedy, punctuated by a series of deadly crises, Grosse Île was home to a quarantine station that served as the gateway for millions of newcomers. Witness to pandemics, health emergencies and the development of modern medical science, Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site is a powerful reminder of the immigrant experience.

Learn more:

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

Transcript

Voice: You're listening to a Parks Canada Podcast. Ce balado est aussi disponible en français.

Fred Sheppard: 1815. Mount Tambora, Southern Indonesia.

The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history sent masses of ash and smoke billowing into the atmosphere, blocking the sun and dramatically altering weather patterns across the planet.

One of Tambora's many effects was a change in ocean nutrients in the Bay of Bengal, causing a strain of bacteria to mutate, and triggering a cholera pandemic that eventually infected millions around the world.

17 years later and 12,000 kilometres away, the looming threat of disease prompted the establishment of an immigration quarantine station near the port of Québec City … on an island called Grosse Île.

I'm Fred Sheppard and you're listening to ReCollections: The Quarantine Island.

Parks Canada is known world-wide as a leader in nature conservation, but we do much more than that. Together with our partners, we commemorate the people, places, and events that have shaped the place we now call Canada. Join us to meet experts from across the country as we explore the sites, stories and artifacts that bring history to life.

Not many historic sites can trace their origin stories to a catastrophic volcanic eruption, but then Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site in the province of Quebec is no ordinary place. Over its 105 years of operation, it was the gateway for more than 4 million immigrants on their way to new lives in North America... A landscape of great hope and great tragedy, and a response to public anxiety about newcomers, the story of Grosse Ile charts the evolution of medical science and technology, punctuated by a series of deadly crises …

And it all began with a pandemic.

By 1832, cholera had spread across Asia and Russia and was wreaking havoc on Western Europe, the point of departure for most immigrants to North America. It was only a matter of time before the disease reached the bustling port of Quebec City. The search was on for a place to inspect and detain incoming ships and people to prevent the disease from gaining a foothold in North America.

Grosse Ile was the perfect spot. 50 kilometres downstream from Quebec City, it was en route for ships arriving from Europe via the St. Lawrence river. It had a good supply of fresh water, and as an island, was naturally suited for keeping newcomers isolated from the mainland.

Grosse Ile is French for ‘Big Island' - probably because it features Telegraph Hill, one of the highest points around.

Tidal waters lap against its rocky beaches and the scent of pine trees fill the air. It's a peaceful spot, but winters can be harsh, with fierce, cold winds.

Evidence of Indigenous presence on the island, like arrowheads, fragments of ceramic tools and traces of fires, dates back to at least the 1200s.

This region of the St. Lawrence River is part of the traditional territories of several first nations who used the island as a fishing and hunting site on their travels up and down the river.

Europeans began settling the St. Lawrence area in the early 1600s, and Grosse Ile was used as farmland for a couple of centuries.

In 1832, with cholera anticipated on ships arriving from Europe, the government expropriated the land and directed the military to establish a quarantine station

Cholera is a bacterial infection spread by contaminated food and water that causes severe dehydration through vomiting and diarrhea. If left untreated, it can lead to death in just a few hours. Back then, it was fatal in up to 50% of cases. Today, with modern sanitation methods, cholera is much less common. And when outbreaks do occur, improved treatments and vaccines usually keep the death rate below 1%.

Throughout the first months at Grosse Ile, workers hastily constructed several wooden buildings at the Western part of the Island to accommodate new immigrants, including a 48-bed hospital, a morgue, and a very basic quarantine shelter – called a shed – for up to 300 people sleeping in close proximity.

There was also housing for the military and staff at the centre of the island, and a battery of cannons to force ships to stop for inspection.

The majority of immigrants traveled by ship in cramped steerage class for the weeks-long journey from Europe. Disease, hunger, and seasickness took a toll, leaving many physically and mentally exhausted. To top it off, large vessels were unable to land on Grosse Ile, so passengers had to disembark into rowboats for the final leg of the journey. One immigrant described the turbulent waters as “akin to a boiling cauldron” and at one point that first summer, several people drowned when a rowboat overturned.

The passengers traveling in Cabin class, the first class on trans-Atlantic passenger ships, were of a higher social status and paid a premium for the luxury of space. On top of better accommodations and meals, cabin class had one major perk: these passengers were presumed healthy and could remain onboard while the others completed their quarantine on the island.

The English writer Susanna Moodie, a cabin passenger, immigrated with her family in August 1832. Here's her description of Grosse Ile:

Voice Actor: A crowd of many hundred Irish emigrants, Man, women, and children who were not confined by sickness to the sheds were employed in washing clothes, spreading them out on the rocks and bushes to dry.

The men and boys were in the water, while the women, with their scanty garments tucked above their knees, were trampling their bedding in tubs, or in the holes in the rocks, which the retiring tide had left half full of water.

The confusion of Babel was among them, We were literally stunned by the strife of tongues.

FS: As the summer progressed, the crowded hospital and quarantine facilities struggled to keep up with the number of arriving immigrants. Some healthy people contracted cholera while in cramped quarantine shelters. Others who were contagious but not showing symptoms passed medical inspection and carried on to Quebec City, leading to… a cholera epidemic, the exact thing that Grosse Ile was supposed to prevent! It soon spread to Montreal and around North America. By the time the pandemic subsided at the end of 1832, it had claimed more than 3000 lives in Quebec City alone.

Over the next 15 years, authority for the quarantine station transferred from the military to the government , and facilities improved. The number of buildings doubled, with 200 hospital beds and accommodations for 800 healthy immigrants. In normal times, this was sufficient to house the new arrivals - but it wasn't enough to deal with the crisis that developed in 1847...not even close…

In the early 1840s, a fungus-like organism called potato blight began decimating potato crops across Western Europe.

One of the worst hit areas was Ireland, where a single potato species, the Irish Lumper, was the main source of food and income for most of the 8 million residents. The huge loss of crops became known as the Irish Famine.

Many of the starving, impoverished Irish farm families were unable to pay rent on their land. They were evicted by the English landlords, and many had no choice but to emigrate on the crowded ships bound for North America.

Malnourished people are more likely to contract illness and infections. In early 1847, Grosse-Île's Medical Superintendent, Dr. George Mellis Douglas warned his superiors to expect

Voice Actor: a greater amount of sickness and mortality.

FS: It didn't take long for his prediction to come true . A steady stream of “coffin ships” – so-called because of the vast number of sick and dying passengers aboard – began arriving once the ice on the St. Lawrence River had thawed.

We spoke with Parks Canada historian Yvan Fortier about the coffin ships of the Great Famine:

Yvan Fortier: Ships would leave Ireland with real human cargo. There were ships with less than ten square feet per person. People were stacked three or four rows high, with minimal clearance. Many were already weak and undernourished prior to the trip. It was a matter of having one or two people onboard who had a disease to transmit it to an overwhelming number of the others. The name Coffin Ships designates these ships with people dead and dying on their beds…left there because it required even more strength to throw them into the sea.

FS: Of the many diseases aboard the coffin ships, the most common was Typhus, a bacterial infection spread by lice. It was also the most deadly.

Ships packed full of immigrants arrived en masse, forming a line that stretched for kilometers down the St Lawrence River. Workers raced to construct new buildings, but Grosse-Île was not prepared for the huge numbers requiring inspection, quarantine and treatment.

A letter dated June 1 st, 1847, reveals the desperation. It was written by Alexander Mitchell, captain of the Argo, one of the ships waiting in line.

Voice Actor : Gentlemen things are really getting worse. There is not one of my sick removed out of the ship. The only relief we get is in carrying them to the grave, which is a daily occurance. I have three corpses onboard; and have more or less everyday we must now resign ourselves to our fate whatever it may be.

There are about 35 vessels, all of the sheds and hospitals on shore are full of sick already. There are at least 12,000 passengers here.

FS: Eventually, the facilities on Grosse Ile became so overwhelmed that iImmigrants who appeared healthy were sent straight to the mainland, while the sick were treated on site – at first in hospitals, but soon in sheds and tents originally intended for healthy newcomers.

One immigrant described what he witnessed as a child on Grosse Ile:

Voice actor : I am an old man now, but not for a moment have I forgotten the scene as parents left children, brothers were parted from sisters, or wives and husbands were separated not knowing whether they should ever meet again.

FS: The Journal de Quebec published an anonymous letter, likely from a nurse working in one of the hospitals:

Voice actor: I cannot describe the horrors and misery I saw… at least thirteen thousand terrible cases of typhus, in addition to smallpox and measles. People died right before our eyes. The bodies were taken to the dead house in wheelbarrows.

FS: Throughout that tragic year, nearly 100,000 immigrants, the vast majority of them Irish, arrived at Grosse-Île.

When the chaos finally relented, the toll was grim: 5,424 people had been buried in Grosse Ile's cemeteries, many in mass, unmarked graves. Thousands more died at sea and on the mainland.

In the years that followed, disease outbreaks flared up and died down in North America and around the world, and the quarantine station remained the first stop for most European immigrants and travelers.

1867, 20 years after the Irish famine, the government of a newly-unified Canada focused on attracting more and more European immigrants to satisfy labour needs and to settle the prairies and other lands taken from Indigenous peoples.

A network of immigration stations developed across the country, including Partridge Island in New Brunswick, Pier 21 in Nova Scotia - and William Head in British Columbia. These facilities allowed authorities to screen immigrants and to assist those granted entry with establishing new lives.

We spoke with Dr. David Monteyne, an architectural historian from the University of Calgary. His latest book focuses on Canadian immigration stations.

David Montenye : The importance of Grosse Ile continues after Confederation, but it becomes less important in a way to the immigration story and more important to other stories such as nation building.

So essentially Canada sees quarantine and controlling the immigration process as a way that they can regulate independently from Britain

FS: Thanks to some leather-bound medical registry books in Parks Canada's collection, we know that Grosse Ile processed many Europeans in this time period. Most came from England, Scotland and Ireland, but there were also patients from Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Germany and Italy as well.

In 1866, a new doctor named Frederick Montizambert arrived at Grosse Ile, first as an inspecting physician, then promoted to the top job of medical superintendent in 1869, a position he held for 30 years, overseeing a major modernization drive.

YF: He arrived with a very strong presence. He is in a way the linchpin that changed and steered Grosse-Île in a completely different direction.

FS: During his tenure, Dr. Montizambert incorporated advances in medical science and technology to improve operations on Grosse Ile.

He became an early adopter of Germ Theory - one of the most important medical developments of the nineteenth century. The idea that microorganisms like bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, can cause illness is widely accepted today, but was revolutionary at the time. Up to this point, the leading theories of why people caught diseases focused on the balance of humours – fluids like bile and blood – within the human body.

Christine Chartre: It is based on the theory of humours. Nature, temperature or your organs. When there is an imbalance, there is disease.

FS: This is Christine Chartre, a Parks Canada historian who specializes in disease at Grosse Ile.

CC: When we can restore that balance, health will be regained. So consider that vomiting, diarrhea, all that, it is nature manifesting the problem.

FS: Miasma, bad air or pollution caused by stagnant water, was another common explanation for illness prior to germ theory.

Dr. Montizambert utilized the concepts of germ theory to make quarantine more efficient and effective by introducing disinfection procedures and medical labs, and ensuring the ill were isolated to avoid infecting the healthy.

CC: At the end of the 19th century. We found the causes of many infections like, dysentery, diphtheria, and other diseases and we developed tests that could confirm which disease someone with, lets say, a fever, pain in the body, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, et cetera, had.

That was an advance in terms of treatment.

FS: Many of the buildings and machines constructed under Dr. Montizambert's leadership can be viewed at Grosse Ile today.

We spoke to Margot Wright, a descendant of Dr. Montizambert, who shared some stories about his life and career:

Margot Wright: I am the great, great niece of Dr. Frederick Montizambert.

He sounds like he was a character. He certainly had a strong character and pushed for public health and modernizing public health.

Fairly early on, he actually got sick from his interactions with immigrants who were coming in. He got typhus and recovered, which was quite something because some of his colleagues, doctors who were vetting the immigrants got sick and died, and perhaps because he was young and strong, he survived

FS:After three decades at Grosse Ile, Dr. Montizambert was named Canada's first Director General of Public Health. He even managed to maintain a sense of humor.

MW: There's a lovely story at the end of his obituary where a friend of his, who I believe was the head of public health for the province of Ontario, the two of them used to go out for lunch when he was working in Ottawa. And at the end of lunch he would say, “this inconsiderate government expects us to work between meals”. So I thought that was kind of funny.

I think he was a smart man, an accomplished man, and he pushed for things that I'm glad he pushed for. I'm glad that he believed in modern science and that he wanted to make this country safer, not just for its own population, but for the immigrants who are moving here by insisting on public health and a modern approach to public health. So I'm proud of that.

FS: Dr. Frederick Montizambert is recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance for his many contributions to medicine and science.

To illustrate the quarantine experience, we'll follow the story of two immigrants as they arrive at Grosse Ile in the early 1900s: John Morris from England, traveling in first class and Mary O'Leary from Ireland, traveling in steerage class.

These are fictional characters, but we've based their story on real experiences of immigrants.

It's May of 1912. John opens the window of his ocean liner cabin for a breath of fresh St. Lawrence air. He's spent the past 10 days in a first class cabin, sleeping on fancy linens and feasting in the dining room with full table service. The introduction of steamship travel has drastically reduced the amount of time passengers spend at sea.

Sick passengers have been found on the ship, and, to everyone's dismay, a period of quarantine is announced.

DM: When a ship came over with immigrants from Europe, it would come up the Saint Lawrence and the doctor would come out from Grosse Ile and inspect the ship. So if there's any diseases on board he would quarantine the ship and people would stay at Grosse Ile for whatever period of quarantine.

FS: After a short shuttleboat ride to the island, John takes his first step on Canadian soil. He's greeted by the Grosse Ile staff, who usher him and his belongings to the two-storey disinfection building. Looking back at the wharf, he notices the steerage passengers wearily stepping onto the quarantine island.

One of them is Mary, who left her home in Ireland with hopes of a better life in North America. She's more than ready to be off this ship, after 10 days sleeping in a cramped room filled with bunk beds. To escape, she spent most of her days taking walks on the deck.

Once the passengers have disembarked – most to the disinfection building, while the obviously sick are taken directly to hospital - Grosse Ile staff quickly begin disinfecting the ship.

YF: As for the ships, instead of brushing them with soap, which could take forever, mercury bichloride would be used to disinfect, which makes it much faster, and would allow quicker access to the Port of Quebec

FS: Mercury bichloride was the primary disinfectant used at Grosse Ile. It's good at killing microorganisms, but highly toxic to humans in anything but tiny amounts. It's not widely used today where safer alternatives like bleach are available.

After the bichloride wash, the interior is fumigated with sulphur dioxide gas to kill any unwanted stowaways like rats and lice.

Before entering the wooden disinfection building, John, Mary and the other healthy passengers place their belongings into numbered bags. Staff pack these bags into large wire-mesh boxes, and put them onto railcars, ready for disinfection.

A medical officer explains the process.

Voice Actor: First thing, your luggage and yourself must be disinfected. When you got off the ship, you separated your luggage into numbered bags. And at this very moment, those bags are heading to the steam chambers to be subjected to dry steam. The steam is heated at 115 degrees celsius to kill any forms of disease. Your belongings will stay at that temperature for 40 minutes.

FS: Dry steam, also called saturated steam, is produced by super-heating water. It contains less than 1 percent moisture - so it's more like a blast of very hot air than a steam sauna. The process works a bit like pasteurization, using heat to kill pathogens.

The dry steam chambers are steel boxes, about 7 meters deep, with tracks on the floor so the railcars can be pushed in and pulled out.

The medical officer explains the next step: a disinfecting shower.

Voice over: This comes in two stages; you can undress in privacy in the first cabin. And then give us your clothes to disinfect. After that, you'll enter the shower room for a 15 minute shower.

FS: The passengers are escorted to the shower room where 44 steel stalls are divided by a wood floor corridor. Each stall has a metal door with chicken wire around the top … to prevent anyone from peeping in on their neighbours.

Inside, there's a showerhead that sprays water from above, as well as three curved horizontal bars, which look like metal hula hoops lined with nozzles, each at a different height.

Suddenly, the jets turn on, spraying their bodies from above and from the side with a mixture of hot water and diluted mercury bichloride.

John appreciates the hot shower after a long journey, but Mary, like many of the steerage passengers, is a bit uneasy - she's only ever bathed in a tub, with water heated over a fire.

After 15 minutes, the showers end and staff return the disinfected clothing to disinfected owners.

Once dressed, Jon and Mary are issued disinfection certificates and are reunited with their luggage. Medical staff inspect each immigrant for signs of disease and check for the tell-tale scars that show they've been vaccinated against smallpox – a legal requirement to enter Canada, championed by Dr. Montizambert.

Mary hasn't had a smallpox vaccine, so the doctors give her the inoculation she needs to be allowed into Canada.

Afterwards, they head to the nearby accommodations where they will complete the mandatory quarantine period with daily medical exams.

DM: On Grosse Ile, instead of dormitories, you have a third class hotel, which is sort of shared rooms with maybe three or four people. You have a second class hotel and you have a first class hotel which is relatively posh and resort-like.

FS:John's cabin-class ticket provides him with a private room in the first-class hotel, perched above the rocky shores of the island.

DM: The idea was really to maintain that first class experience as much as possible. Really emphasize the views of the river and the countryside from the hotel. There's a veranda across the front of the first class hotel so people can sit out there and enjoy it as a resort.

The first class hotel is catered, often probably by the ship's cook. On the ground floor, there's a big dining room where people would come down and the fireplace, full table service. Upstairs, there's more of a ballroom kind of space where leisure activities would occur

FS: Mary walks to her third-class hotel and finds her bunk in the large, dormitory style room. There are no lounges or gathering spaces – but she's able to go for walks to Telegraph Hill when she needs a break from the other immigrants in quarantine.

DM: Most people traveling in third class on the ship, would never have had a hotel experience. So they weren't necessarily expecting first class resort experience.

They never expected anybody to kind of serve them or take care of them

FS: In the early morning of the fifth day of quarantine, Mary wakes up with a fever and discovers some small red bumps on her arms. She alerts the hotel staff, who call an ambulance to take her to a hospital on the other side of the island. Keeping the hospitals away from the hotels was part of the strategy to prevent the spread of diseases.

A black horse-drawn carriage, Grosse Ile's ambulance, pulls up outside her hotel. In a haze of dread and discomfort, Mary climbs in and awaits her fate.

The ambulance follows the road across the island, passing by a guardpost, a cemetery and the village where the Grosse Ile staff live with their families.

DM: There was a school, there were little chapels, all the things that you might expect in a village.

FS: Nearing the eastern end of the island, the hospitals come into view.

As they approach, the ambulance driver rings a metal bell with a foot pedal to alert the medics to prepare for a new patient.

A doctor gives Mary an examination and confirms her fears – she has contracted smallpox, probably due to exposure on the ship, before her vaccination.

Smallpox is an infectious viral disease spread from person to person, characterized by high fevers, body aches and a painful rash of open sores - also called pustules - in the mouth and body. It's been tragically responsible for vast numbers of deaths throughout history, and it decimated Indigenous populations across North America after European colonization.

Mary is taken to the Smallpox Hospital, a long building made entirely of wood, with large windows featuring river views. It's one of several hospitals, and one of the oldest buildings on the island, dating back to the days of the Irish famine.

White is the dominant colour scheme for all of the surfaces inside the building…

YF: The buildings were whitewashed inside and out. Why? Because lime helps fight against microorganisms that could get lodged in shingle roofs, and in siding.

FS: Whitewash - also called limewash - is a type of antiseptic paint that humans have used for thousands of years. To make it, limestone is crushed into a powder and mixed with water, then used to paint surfaces.

Voice Actor: Hello. Welcome to the hospital Number four, I am Sara Wade, I'm the head nurse here on the station. You've been through the medical inspection on the boat with the doctors. Probably checked your eyes, the color of your tongue, if you are having any fever and if you have any swollen lymph nodes, which would be a sign that you are fighting an infection. But if you're here, it's probably because you are contagious with smallpox, since we found cases on your ship, we bring you here and you'll be in the beds for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on how long you need to recover. Everything will be disinfected at the end. You as well. Because even the powder of the pustules when they dry out can be contagious. Same as for the droplets of water in the air. That's the reason why you are not in the main hospital, isolated from other patients, because it is a very contagious disease.

FS: The nurse guides Mary through the hospital.

DM: It's an open ward. So all the beds are in a row. Typically, it goes bed, window, bed, window, bed, window. So everybody can see each other. And there's lots of windows for cross ventilation. So typically they'd be quite breezy and cool. And there would be a nursing station at one end of the wards, so the nurse could sort of survey everybody at once.

FS: They enter the last room where Mary is immediately overwhelmed by the colour red. The walls are red, blankets are red, even the windows have ruby-coloured glass.

The concept of the red room is similar to a photographer's “dark room” which requires the absence of light to develop photos from negatives. Red light is perfect in a dark room - it's the closest you can get to full darkness, while still being able to see what you're working on.

In the smallpox hospital, all this red made the space more comfortable for patients with pustules on their eyes and eyelids, making bright sunlight unbearable. It may have also reduced scarring.

For the next month, Mary slowly recovers. There's no drug therapy for smallpox, but the nurses provide cold-water baths and cover her rashes with petroleum jelly. At her weakest point, she's given a liquid diet of milk, water and barley….and opiates for the pain.

Meanwhile, at the first class hotel, John continues to wait, never developing any symptoms of disease. He isn't totally clear how long his quarantine period will last and he's getting impatient.

DM: By the 19th century, most people are talking about a fortnight. So two weeks. But again, it's totally dependent on the situation.

And then sometimes it might be longer. So for instance, if more cases start to show up, then you have to kind of restart the quarantine period. So it can get extended and extended three weeks, four weeks and so on. So it's really unpredictable, which, needless to say, drove people crazy.

FS: Once Mary has fully recovered, she continues on to the port of Quebec City by shuttle boat. John completed quarantine weeks earlier.

DM: Once you're done your quarantine, You go up to Quebec City, where there's a building right on the waterfront, a pier building, similar to Pier 21 in Halifax, which survives - the one in Quebec City does not. And there you would go through your medical and civil inspection. Your medical inspection at the pier building is much more “Is this a healthy person who's going to be a contributing citizen?” And then the civil inspection is “Do you have a bit of money to get you started? Do you have maybe a job lined up or land that you're planning to homestead? “, those kinds of more not medical questions. So you pass through those things in Quebec City.

FS: After recovering from her ordeal, Mary opted to settle in nearby Montreal. For John, like many, Quebec was just another stopover on the immigration journey across Canada and the United States.

John and Mary are fictional, but their stories are drawn from historical records and from the buildings and landscapes visible on Grosse Ile today. The voices you heard were historians and Parks Canada interpreters, not archival audio.

As contagious diseases became less prevalent throughout the 1920s and 30s, the need for a quarantine station decreased.

DM: It hadn't been used very much for the previous couple of decades. So there's a few reasons. One: People are just generally healthier. There's medical inspections abroad now by the 1910s and 20s. So immigrants are having health checks done and physicals done before they even get on the boat. So there's less likelihood of disease, And then I think, you know, related to fewer patients, you also get fewer immigrants. There's a huge boom in immigration in 1910 to 1913. Then World War One hits. Of course, there's no immigration, and it takes a few years in the twenties before immigration starts to resume. And by the late 20s there's a lot more immigration going on. But it's nothing compared to the numbers before World War One and with people being healthier and so on. There's just not really anybody being quarantined at Grosse Ile. So there's some interesting debates in parliament about whether to keep it open. And for a long time, they keep it open in some ways for the sake of the image. Like we are protecting our borders still. But the reality is it's not being used very much. So ultimately, they finally decide it's not worth keeping it open.

FS: The quarantine station closed for good in 1937.

In the following years, Grosse Ile became, among other things, an agricultural research facility and even a government quarantine station once more - but this time for farm animals imported to Canada.

In 1974, Grosse Ile was named a national historic site and, in 1990's, Parks Canada completed a massive restoration project that included renovating a chicken coop back into the smallpox hospital with the red room. Figuring out how to restore the facility was challenging because a fire in the 1870s destroyed many of the original buildings and most of the records - that's why those medical register books we mentioned earlier are valuable for immigration researchers.

The thousands of immigrants who lost their lives at Grosse Ile and on the journey there have not been forgotten:

In addition to the remaining buildings, there are two memorials and three cemeteries on the island today.

A Celtic cross made of granite stands 15 metres above a rocky bluff on Telegraph Hill, in memory of Irish immigrants who came to Canada during the Great Famine. Erected in 1909 by an Irish fraternal organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians, it looks like a standard cross, but with a stylized circle around the intersection point.

Parks Canada added a second monument in 1998 - a low wall of stacked stones, 10 meters across, encircled by a glass panel with the names of nearly 8,000 people who died at the Grosse Île quarantine station over its century of operation.

Yvan gave us a tour

YF: If you fly above it, you would see two distinct arcs of a circle. As if it were a Celtic cross. And the stones recall the character of the very old, practically Neolithic monuments of Ireland. Moving inwards, we walk through a passage that goes from east to west depicting the arrival from Ireland. The passage towards the junction is meant to represent the rise of souls to heaven.

FS: The cemeteries on Grosse Ile are the final resting place for many immigrants. The largest is known as the Irish Cemetery, and was used until 1847. More than 6,000 people are buried here.

Today, Grosse-Île is a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world, a place to celebrate the dreams and aspirations of immigrants traveling to new beginnings in North America… and a place to remember those who lost their lives on the journey.

Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site is open from May to October. You can access the island by boat from Berthier-Sur-Mer, 45 minutes from Quebec City, or by plane from nearby Montmagny. Visitors can tour the disinfection building, the hotels, the village, and the smallpox hospital with its layers of whitewash and the striking red room. You can also pay your respects at the memorials and cemeteries while taking in the views of the St. Lawrence that Susanna Moodie described as

Voice Actor: “ the glorious river…Nature … lavished all her noblest features in producing that enchanting scene.”

FS: ReCollections is produced by Parks Canada. A big thank you to Yvan Fortier, Christine Chartre, Dr. Jason King, Gabrielle Martel-Carrier, Laura, Shaun, and Rhys Nixon. Thanks as well to Dr. David Monteyne, whose book For the Temporary Accommodation of Settlers: Architecture and Immigrant Reception in Canada is a great resource to learn more about quarantine stations across the country.

For loads of extras, including a Google Arts and Culture exhibition with photos of the buildings, monuments and artifacts, plus maps of the island, check out the show notes or visit parks.canada.ca/recollections

I'm your host - Fred Sheppard. Thanks for listening.

Bibliography

Journal Articles and Books

  • Chilton, Lisa. Receiving Canada's Immigrants: The Work of the State Before 1930. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 2016.
  • Errington, Jane. Emigrant Worlds and Transatlantic Communities. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.
  • Forster, Merna. “Through the Eyes of Immigrants: an Analysis of Diaries and Letters of Immigrants Arriving at Grosse Île and the Port of Quebec 1832-42.” MA thesis, Université Laval, 1991.
  • King, Jason. “'Une voix d'Irlande': Integration, migration and travelling nationalism between Famine Ireland and Quebec.” In The Famine Irish: Emigration and the Great Hunger, edited by Ciarán Reilly, 193-208. Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2016.
  • Mac Lean, Margaret G.H., and David Myers. Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site: A Case Study. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. http://hdl.handle.net/10020/gci_pubs/grosse_ille.
  • Mark-Fitzgerald, Emily. Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013.
  • McGowan, Mark. Creating Canadian Historical Memory: The Case of the Famine Migration of 1847. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 2006.
  • McMahon, Colin. “Recrimination and reconciliation: Great Famine memory in Liverpool and Montreal at the turn of the twentieth century.” Atlantic Studies 11, no. 3 (2014): 344-364.
  • Monteyne, David. For the Temporary Accommodation of Settlers: Architecture and Immigrant Reception in Canada, 1870-1930. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021.
  • O'Gallagher, Marianna and Rose Masson Dompierre. Eyewitness: Grosse-Île, 1847. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Livres Carraig Books, 1995.
  • O'Gallagher, Marianna. Grosse-Île: Gateway to Canada, 1832-1937. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Livres Carraig Books, 1984.
  • Quigley, Micheal. “Grosse Ile: Canada's Irish Famine Memorial.” Labour/Le Travail 39 (spring 1997): 195-214.
  • Trigger, Rosalyn. “Irish Politics on Parade: The Clergy, National Societies, and St. Patrick's Day Processions in Nineteenth-century Montreal and Toronto.” Histoire sociale/Social History 37, no. 74 (2004): 159-199.
  • Vallée, Marie-Hélène. “Peu nombreuses mais essentielles: les travailleuses salariées de la station de quarantaine de la Grosse-Île, 1891-1924.” PhD thesis, Université Laval, 2006.
  • Vekeman-Masson, Jeannette. Grand-Maman raconte La Grosse-Île. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Éditions La Liberté, 1981.

Government Documents and Publications

  • Anick, Norman. “Grosse Île and Partridge Island, Quarantine Stations.” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Submission Report 1983-19.
  • Bergeron, Yves, and Renée Martel. “Lieu historique national de la Grosse-Île, programme de collection des artefacts historiques.” Environment Canada, Parks Service, Collections Management, Quebec Region, 1991.
  • Charbonneau, André. “La station de quarantaine de la Grosse- Île (1832-1937) : bilan et perspective.” Québec City: Parks Canada, 1987.
  • Charbonneau, André, and André Sévigny. 1847, Grosse Île: a Record of Daily Events. Ottawa: Canadian Heritage and Parks Canada, 1997. https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.889550/publication.html
  • Chartré, Christine. “Le traitement des maladies contagieuses à la station de la Grosse-Île, 1832-1927.” Cultural heritage and built heritage, Québec City, Parks Canada, 2001.
  • Chartré, Christine. “La désinfection dans le système quarantenaire maritime de la Grosse-Île : 1832-1937.” Cultural Heritage Management, professional and technical services, Québec region, Parks Canada, 1995.
  • Ethnoscop. “Lieu historique national de la Grosse-Île-et-le-Mémorial-des-Irlandais : inventaire archéologique dans le secteur des lazarets (76G).” Report prepared for Parks Canada, 2015.
  • Parks Canada. Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada, Management Plan 2017. https://parks.canada.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/info/gestion-management-2018.
  • Parks Canada. Section Histoire et Archéologie, bureau régional de Québec. “Le Patrimoine architectural de la Grosse-Île.” Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office, Building Report 90-31.
  • Parks Canada. “Grosse Île NHS Information Supplement.” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Supplementary Report 1992-OB-10.
  • Plourde, Michel. “Ét étude de potentiel paléohistorique (Amérindien) de la Grosse-Île - Projet 89-1535.” Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1990.
  • Prud'Homme, Chantal. “Etude du paysage de Grosse-Île.” Public Works and Government Services Canada, for Parks Canada, Québec region, 1995.
  • Sévigny, André. “Étude polyphasique des aménagements de la Grosse-Île: 1832-1980.” Parks Canada, 1991.
  • Sévigny, André. “Frederick Montizambert, homme-relais de la bactériologie et pionnier de la santé publique au Canada (1843-1929).” HSMBC, Submission Report 1998-14.

Primary Sources

  • Anonymous author. Letter to the editor. Journal de Quebec, June 17, 1847. Cited in André Charbonneau and André Sévigny, 1847, Grosse Île: a Record of Daily Events. Ottawa: Canadian Heritage and Parks Canada, 1997. https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.889550/publication.html
  • Loe Smith, William. Pioneers of Old Ontario. Toronto: G. N. Morang, 1923, 208-9. Cited in David Monteyne, For the Temporary Accommodation of Settlers: Architecture and Immigrant Reception in Canada, 1870-1930. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021.
  • McCullough, John W.S. “Dr. Frederick Montizambert, C.M.G., I.S.O., M.D., F.R.C.S.E., D.C.L.” Canadian Public Health Journal 20, no. 12 (December, 1929), 634.
  • Mitchell, Alexander. Letter to the editor. Quebec Morning Herald, June 1 1847.
Louisbourg: Enslavement and Freedom at the French Fortress

How much do you know about the history of Black African enslavement in the place we now call Canada?

In this episode, we find traces of the lives of enslaved people at the 18th-century French Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. By piecing together the unique story of Guinea-born Marie Marguerite Rose, we'll learn about those who lived and died in enslavement…as well as the rise and fall (and rise again) of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

Special thanks to our Consulting Producers: Dr. Karolyn Smardz-Frost and Dr. Afua Cooper of A Black People's History of Canada Project

Learn more:

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

Transcript

Fred Sheppard: This episode discusses sexual assault and race-based violence related to the slave trade - though not in graphic detail. Listener discretion is advised.

West Africa, early 1700s - a young African woman, we don't know her name, sits by a fire. Gazing into the flames, she'd never imagine that her fate lay an ocean away, as the owner of an inn and tavern in foggy Nova Scotia… the first black businesswoman on record in Canada.

But between then and now, she'd be kidnapped, sold into the Atlantic Slave trade – one of the most horrific of human experiences – then spend 19 years enslaved in a French fortress with a name imposed by her enslavers.

This is the story of the woman who became known as Marie Marguerite Rose.

Afua Cooper: The image that Canada loves to present of itself is this place that received fugitive slaves from the United States. That's a celebrated story. But Canada had its own history of enslavement.

FS: I'm your host Fred Sheppard and you're listening to ReCollections - Enslavement and Freedom at Fortress Louisbourg.

This episode was made in collaboration with Dalhousie University's: A Black People's History of Canada project.

Parks Canada is known world-wide as a leader in nature conservation, but we do much more than that. Together with our partners, we commemorate the people, places, and events that have shaped the place we now call Canada. Join us to meet experts from across the country as we explore the sites, stories and artifacts that bring history to life.

In this episode, instead of terms like slave and slave owner, we'll use enslaved person, and enslaver to try to recognize the humanity of historical figures. Terms like ‘slavery' and ‘the slave trade' are sometimes necessary when discussing human beings treated as objects to be bought and sold.

1757, the fortress town of Louisbourg, capital of the French colony of Ile Royale.

Voice Actor: officials proceeded to Marie Marguerite Rose's apartment at 9 o'clock in the evening of August 27th where they found Marie's body. The court officials immediately began to conduct an inventory of the items in the house.

Voice actor: Item, two necklaces, one of pearls, the other of garnets.

Item, two pairs of silk stockings, one white and the other gray.

FS: Imagine a complete list of all of your possessions, as you left them on the day of your death.

Voice actor: Item, a man's shirt, new, having only one sleeve, the other being attached with a pin. Item, a barrel containing some raspberries.

FS: What would it say about your time on earth?

Voice actor: Item, two old calamanco petticoats, one of them red, a pair of panne trousers, together with a book entitled Le cuisinier royal, and an old chest.

FS: Historians love a probate inventory document, like the reading you just heard. A person's possessions can tell us a lot about their lives and what they valued. The inventory of Marie Marguerite Rose is the only one we know of from a once-enslaved person at Ile-Royale. It provides some clues to her remarkable story of resilience, linking eighteenth century Louisbourg to the wider French empire, where salt cod, sugar, rum, and yes, people, were traded as commodities, transported between Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe.

Marie-Marguerite was one of at least 400 people enslaved in the French colony and one of only six to gain freedom.

To piece together her story, let's start with the location: a fortified port on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

The island is part of the traditional territory of the Mi'kmaw Nation who call it Unama'ki], which loosely translates to “Land of Fog.” Today, it's known as Cape Breton, part of the maritime province of Nova Scotia.

The Fortress of Louisbourg was established in 1713 on a peninsula on Cape Breton's eastern shore, part of the colony of Ile Royale, near what's now the community of Sydney.

Louisbourg held a strategic location: a deep sea port on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the main entryway to the colony of New France, in what's now Quebec. Easy access to the valuable Atlantic cod fishery didn't hurt, and it became the capital of Ile Royale in 1719.

In the eighteenth century, as France and England fought for control over North America, the French went all-in on defenses - Louisbourg was fortified with high stone walls and had troops permanently stationed to withstand attack. But it wasn't enough to keep Louisbourg in French hands – in its 45-year existence, the British captured it twice, and after the second battle, destroyed the fortifications.

AC: Louisbourg is really a unique place. I mean, it guards the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence, the entry to Canada.

FS: This is Dr. Afua Cooper, historian and professor of Black Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

AC:It's symbolic and it's emblematic to me of the struggle in the 18th century between France and England and the creation of this world of slavery, the creation of this world of trade, the movement and migrations that you see all across the Atlantic.

FS: The slave trade was big business in France and throughout its empire, and Louisbourg played a central role. Its fishery produced a rich harvest of cod. The best bits were exported to the lucrative European markets. The less desirable cuts of dried, salted fish were shipped south to the French colonies in the Caribbean to feed enslaved people there, whose labour produced the coffee, sugar, rum and molasses exported to Europe and North America. Most enslaved people at Louisbourg began their lives in these Caribbean colonies, transported and traded like the commodities they produced.

But …this was not the case for Marie Marguerite, who spent her early years in Guinea, West Africa before being captured and sold into the slave trade at 19.

From there, she was forced into the ruthless sea journey known as the “middle passage,” part of the Trans-Atlantic trade route between Africa and the Caribbean . Treatment of the enslaved people was horrendous - overcrowding, food shortages, violence, disease and death were widespread on these ships.

We don't know which French Caribbean colony she ended up at, but shortly after arriving, she was sold to one of Louisbourg's elites, baptized as a Catholic and assigned the name Marie Marguerite Rose. Her original name, along with much of her life story, remains lost to history…part of the dehumanizing efforts of the enslavers.

In the French and British colonies that eventually became Canada, a total of around 4000 Black people and 2700 First Nations people were enslaved. The majority of the Indigenous people enslaved by the French lived in the New France colony, but at Ile Royale, 90 percent of enslaved people were of African descent, due to the close trade links with the Caribbean.

Marie Marguerite was enslaved in the home of Jean and Magdeleine Loppinot, an upper class Louisbourg family with 12 children. She was likely responsible for most domestic tasks, like sweeping the floors, cleaning, preparing meals, cutting firewood, collecting well water, keeping the house fire burning, gardening, and providing childcare.

Charlene Chasse : When I talk about Marie Marguerite Rose, I feel a great connection.

FS:This is Charlene Chassé

CC:I am an interpreter at the Fortress of Louisbourg. I self-identify as an African Nova Scotian.

FS: Charlene shares Marie Marguerite's story with visitors.

CC:I feel like this woman went through hell to be taken from slavery, taken and brought up here. Dear Lord, I'd think I'd be coming to the other end of the world, as the temperatures would drop, as you come up the coast of Louisbourg and then to be enslaved, and not being your own property, not having your own mindset, you're at someone's beck and call 24 seven.

FS:Around 3% of Louisbourg's population was enslaved. Most were domestic labourers like Marie Marguerite – servants, nursemaids, cooks, gardeners. The plantation labour that we often associate with cotton, tobacco, and sugar crops in the United States and the Caribbean didn't exist in Canada, but the work was still brutal, as Afua explains:

AC: Let's think of the wear and tear on the body of doing this kind of work every single day, not getting enough rest, not getting enough nutrition.

FS: Reconstructing the lives of enslaved people is challenging. Evidence and details are hard to come by. Enslaved people appear in population data, but they're usually unnamed, or simply listed as possessions. Archaeologists have found artifacts like tools and household objects connected to enslaved people … but since most were unable to own property and were illiterate, they rarely left behind written sources like journals or letters.

Ken Donovan :The last thing slave owners wanted to do was teach a person how to read and write. Because when you learn how to read and write, you're empowered. You really are.

FS: This is Ken Donovan, a retired Parks Canada historian. To learn about the lives of enslaved people, researchers like Ken have to piece together bits of information from documents like birth records, baptisms, wills, court records, bills of sale, and newspaper ads for runaways.

KD: So this is how we learn about what I call incidental documentation. A little bit here. A little bit there. You just have to pick away at it. looking for one thing and you come across a person that had been enslaved.

AC: So all across Lower and Upper Canada, the Maritimes, you could find newspapers. And in these newspapers enslavers were advertising for their runaway slaves or sending notice that we want to buy people, we want to buy black people as slaves or they want to sell.

FS: Enslavers also left probate inventories with details about enslaved people in the household, like their age, gender, skills and the amount they could be sold for.

Another glimpse into Marie Marguerite's life comes from a baptism record - 2 years after arriving at Louisbourg, she gave birth to a son named Jean-Francois. His paternity is listed as “inconnu” or “unknown” - though the child's “father” was very likely Marie Marguerite's enslaver.

At least 35 children were born to enslaved mothers at Louisbourg. Enslaved people often slept under the same roof as the men who enslaved them. For enslaved women and girls, sexual abuse was a constant threat.

AC: When you look in some of the records of birth for enslaved people, you have these enslaved women who have children who are described as mulattos or fathers unknown. Now, what's that? What's this “father is unknown”? You know, what's - what's that all about?

The priest should be ashamed of themselves for even writing that because they know who the father is.

So many of those children that the women got pregnant with whose father is unknown, was as a result of rape. So you live in the household of the master. You might be living in the basement or in the attic or there's a little dark room that you sleep in. You are vulnerable. The woman is sexually vulnerable to the men. And I'm not saying men weren't sexually abused. I mean, research is coming out now that showing that did happen too. But the bulk of that kind of abuse we know was to women and not just women. Sometimes we're talking about young girls, young children, age 11, who were raped by their enslavers.

FS: Jean-Francois, as Marie Marguerite's son, was born into enslavement, adding to the enslaver's personal wealth. When he got older, Jean-Francois lived and worked alongside his mother. Sadly, we don't know much about his short life, only that he died of unknown causes just before his thirteenth birthday.

The vast majority of enslaved people in Ile Royale died in enslavement. Only a small fraction ever had a taste of freedom. For Marie Marguerite, that freedom came around the age of 38, after 19 years of forced, unwaged service.

To replace her, the Loppinots purchased a 12 year old boy named Amable Louis Cezar.

As with many details of Marie Marguerite's life, we don't know exactly how she was freed. Throughout the French empire, enslavers would sometimes manumit—or grant freedom – to an enslaved person if they were sick and could no longer work - though this was rare. In some cases, an enslaved person would work for someone else in addition to their enslaver to save enough money to buy their own freedom.

Marie Marguerite married a Mi'kmaq trader named Jean-Baptiste Laurent soon after, so it's possible that he purchased her freedom.

This was the case with another Louisbourg couple, Jean Baptiste Cupidon and Catherine Francoise. He was a formerly-enslaved ‘freedman' who entered into a contract with Catherine's enslaver, paying for her freedom over the course of a year. The couple offered their belongings – and themselves – as collateral until the payments were complete.

As for Marie Marguerite and her husband, there is a lot we don't know about their life together, like how they met and whether he lived in Louisbourg before the marriage. We do know the couple rented a half-timbered house with a yard and garden near her former enslavers for their inn business as well as their home.

Much of what we know about Marie Marguerite's life as an innkeeper comes from a letter she never received.

Anne Marie Lane Jonah: From where I start my inquiry for historical women, there's a level of challenge finding information. For women of color there's like a quadrupled level of challenge.

FS: This is Anne Marie Lane Jonah, a Parks Canada historian based in Halifax.

AMLJ: So it is a personal letter.

FS: The letter, from a French business contact, was discovered in a British archive centuries after her death.

AMLJ: What he's writing to tell her is that the last time he left, he left on a ship and was immediately captured by a British privateer.

FS: Privateers were like mercenary pirate crews sanctioned by the crown, authorized during wartime to attack ships of enemy nations and seize their cargo.

AMLJ: And he had this long, circuitous route, to finally get home in southwestern France. So he's writing to tell her that he won't be back, that that the war is going to prevent him from returning.

FS: In the days before modern postal systems, people often sent letters on private ships.

AMLJ: He mentions that he has left with her a trunk full of goods and a procuration, which is in the French court, is like a power of attorney. So he's saying, “I'm not going to get back, so please wrap up my business for me.” And he asks her to sell the trunk and he asks her as well to get the money that he's owed for his share of a privateer. So he's asking her to go on his behalf and talk to merchants of Louisbourg about business and trusting her to be able to manage all of this. So it takes our perception of her as an innkeeper, definitely gives us a sense of how embedded she was in the business community of the town: that she was known, that she was trusted, that she could go to M. Himbert who was one of the wealthier merchants and settle this deal.

And then he concludes his letter, even though he's made it very clear he's not coming back, that he still is waiting for the honor of seeing her again one day. This is a form of politeness, but it goes beyond the usual business letter. It definitely has a sense of a regard for her and that for him, seeing her and talking to her is a pleasure.

Suddenly, I feel like you see her a little better. You can see her walking down the street to go meet this merchant to take care of business.

FS: But this letter never made it to Marie Marguerite, because the French ship it was on was also captured by English privateers, which is how it ended up in a British archive…and from there, into Anne Marie's research.

It's unlikely the letter would have made it to Marie Marguerite one way or the other. She died suddenly in August 1757, the same year it was written.

Enslaved people generally didn't live long lives. Marie Marguerite was around 40 when she died – young by today's standards, but for a woman who had experienced hard labour and exploitation, she likely outlived many of her peers.

We don't know how she died or what became of her husband, but we can be certain that he didn't stay too much longer - only a year later, Louisbourg faced its final battle. In a pivotal turning point of the Seven Years War, British forces laid siege to the fortress, eventually capturing and destroying it. Just one year later, the decisive battle at the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City effectively ended French colonial ambitions in what's now Canada.

Interestingly, there was a twelve year old enslaved boy named Olaudah Equiano aboard one of the British naval ships. He went on to be an exceptional figure in the abolitionist movement against slavery, and wrote about his experience at the Battle of Louisbourg years later.

Voice actor: We arrived at Cape Breton in the summer of 1758: and here the soldiers were to be landed, in order to make an attack upon Louisbourgh. My master had some part in superintending the landing…

The French were posted on the shore to receive us, and disputed our landing for a long time; but at last they were driven from their trenches, and a complete landing was effected. Our troops pursued them as far as the town of Louisbourg. In this action many were killed on both sides…

Our land forces laid siege… at last Louisbourgh was taken.

FS: The British destroyed much of the fortifications to prevent anyone from retaking it. For two hundred years, toppled stone walls were the only remnants.

But in the 1960s, Louisbourg' s fortunes began to change.

Cape Breton's once-thriving coal mining industry was in decline. To help revive the regional economy and provide new employment for the miners, the Canadian government proposed rebuilding the Fortress of Louisbourg as a living history museum.

What visitors see at the national historic site today is a carefully researched reconstruction of one quarter of the original town. Military, commercial, and domestic buildings line the streets, offering an interpretation of life in the fortified port during its heyday.

The reconstruction was a massive undertaking, spanning over twenty years - but luckily the French bureaucracy of the 1700s kept detailed plans and maps to work from. It's notable that a society that prided itself on reason and good governance saw no contradiction with allowing slavery at the same time. That contradiction lasted nearly another century - slavery was banned throughout the French empire in 1848. In most British colonies, including British North America, slavery was abolished only 14 years earlier - in 1834.

The reconstructed Fortress opened to the public in stages, beginning in 1968. In the early days, visitors didn't hear much about its history of enslavement.

The interpretation generally focused on the upper class sections of town. Later, Parks Canada began looking into a broader spectrum of Louisbourg society.

Here's Ken, the retired Parks Canada historian.

KD: Charlene and I worked for years. I'm literally saying that for years, because we had to educate people in Cape Breton about slavery.

We developed scenarios and tours based on Marie Marguerite Rose's life to develop an interpretive scenario, because we had good evidence on her life.

We did have a slavery tour for a number of years. I think we had 27 people in about 14 different houses where you walked along the streets and say “see this house here? This is where so-and-so lived.”

And then when we did recognize Marie Marguerite Rose as a person of national historic significance, we bussed people in free into the site, black people from Whitney Pier in Sydney. So it was quite a celebratory moment really

FS: Charlene again.

CC: It really didn't affect me until later on. I started working here,, you do a slavery tour, you talk about slavery. But then it started to touch home a little bit more. It made me want to do a little bit more research on where these people came from and what they did. And it's my passion.

It's properly interpreted because we give it our all. You have to step up to the plate and you have to make sure you're going to give it 110%. These people deserve dignity. They didn't have it during their lifetime. They didn't have it during the time they were on this earth. So I'm here. I'm going to show you and tell you how they were. And I'm going to show you that these people were human beings just like any other person on this earth at that time. Just that some people in their mindset, they were a different color. They spoke a different language. They came from a different country, a continent. So they're going to be treated different because they believe that they didn't have any morals, any brains, and they were considered animals.

FS: An important stop on any tour of Louisbourg is by the plaque commemorating Marie Marguerite Rose as a person of national historic significance. It's in a grassy field where her inn once stood, a reminder of the place where travelers and merchants looking for a bed and a meal could meet and discuss the day's business.

The plaque reads, in part:

Captured in Africa at the age of 19 and transported to Ile Royale, where she was sold to a member of the colonial elite, Marie Marguerite Rose is seen to be a key figure of the initial phase of Black slavery in Canada… Rose's experience speaks to the presence of slavery on Ile Royale and in Canada, where an estimated population of 1,375 Black slaves existed during the French Regime.

Buildings are not the only things reconstructed at Louisbourg. Costumed interpreters like Charlene share the story of this place with visitors. To help them look the part, Elizabeth Tait, a curator of textiles for Parks Canada, creates replicas of historic clothing – including two dresses based on Marie Marguerite's probate inventory.

Elizabeth Tait : What's interesting about her inventory is that the garments are French, but the materials were a little bit unusual. I was surprised how much cotton was in her inventory, and it's quite possible that that was the Guinea influence.

FS: Some of the more colourful items mentioned in the inventory may be connected to Marie Marguerite's west African roots, where producing indigo dye was important work for many women.

FS: Ken and Charlene again.

KD: She has dye, blue dye. And we know along the coast of Africa, particularly the west coast of Africa, people wanted very colorful clothing.

CC:Bright colors. So when you look at it, her roots come back in the way she dresses and the way she looks after her household.

FS: Charlene described Marie Marguerite's outfits:

CC: She would have a bonnet, a wool vest, woolen skirt, woolen socks, a chemise, a petticoat. When they did her inventory, they found that she did have some silk stockings. She had a neckerchief that had some lace on it. So we assume that these things came from somebody that gave it to her, a slave does not come across a silk stockings or a lace, because that's handmade lace. So you wouldn't have it on every day. it's unbelievable when you get in that costume and you walk around. You feel middle class. No corset, thank God.

FS: curator Elizabeth again.

ET: One of the things that I liked the best in that inventory is that she had married and there's a description of a man's shirt and one sleeve is pinned in place. And so I just assume that she knew how to sew and was actually making her husband a shirt. It's nice. Like it's a very human. it just sort of makes… it makes her more immediate to us.

FS:These historic costumes help tell the story of life in Louisbourg.

CC:The clothes are a big part of us. That's what people identify. When they come here, they want to step back in history.

FS: It's clear that Charlene feels a deep personal connection with this African woman born centuries ago, thrust into a life in a faraway place she neither wanted nor chose...

A similar sentiment came through when speaking with Afua:

AC:This story is so tremendous. It's so unique because when she died and she had an estate. She left clothing, she left groceries, so to speak. She was manumitted two years before she died. And so in that two years, she set herself up. She got married. She established a tavern and an inn. So to have the evidence such as this. I just think it's tremendous. And because of that. Parks Canada has plaqued her existence, has plaqued her story, has plaqued her life. I mean, she died. That is unfortunate. She never got to see her homeland again. But I feel heartened. I'm glad that she established a business. I'm glad that she got married, glad that she has had this love relationship. It makes me happy.

So it was rare because enslaved people typically just went through this life of slavery, this life of brutalization and death. And we don't know much about them, you know, not leaving much evidence behind.

FS: Enslaved people in Ile Royale were stripped of their names, their identities and their histories. They were forced to adapt to lives they did not choose and could not control. Yet, they were individuals, with personal stories and identities they likely kept hidden from the enslavers. They had a significant presence in a place like Louisbourg, but sadly we know very little about most of these women, men, and children who lived and died in enslavement.

CC: More people have to know. More people have to know about slavery in Canada. It wasn't just the French. The British also brought their slaves over here. If we don't know our history we don't know where we're going. And everybody should dig into their history and find out where

they're going.

AC:I was born and raised in Jamaica. My heritage is slave heritage. My ancestors were enslaved. They went through these things. You know, I'm sure some of them ran away. I'm sure some of them were killed. So this is the work that I've chosen. It's not just an academic gesture, it's also a real personal thing for me.

CC:I've been here now for almost 20 some years. You couldn't ask for a better or magnificent job than what I'm doing here. When you open, you say everyone goes to their office and have the corner window. Well, I have a view that you can't even pay for. No skyline could do it. No nothing. It's absolutely beautiful.

FS: Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is open to the public year round, but for the full interpretive experience, it's best to visit in the summer months. It's a 5 hour drive from Halifax, or you can fly to nearby Sydney, Nova Scotia. Visitors can tour the reconstructed fortified town and learn from the costumed interpreters who bring the site to life.

ReCollections is produced by Parks Canada. A big thank you to our consulting producers, Dr. Afua Cooper, and Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost who is an archaeologist and historian specializing in North American Black transnationalism.

And thank you to Charlene Chasse, Ken Donovan, Anne Marie Lane Jonah and Elizabeth Tait.

For loads of extras, including a Google Arts and Culture exhibition with photos and historic maps of the fortress, take a look at the show notes or visit parks.canada.ca/recollections

I'm your host, Fred Sheppard. Thanks for listening.

Bibliography

Journal Articles and Books:

  • Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique, the Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007
  • Donovan, Ken. “Slaves and Their Owners in Ile Royale, 1713-1760. Acadiensis 25, no.1 (autumn 1995): 3-32.
  • Donovan, Ken. “Slaves in Île Royale, 1713-1758.” French Colonial History 5, (2004): 25-42.
  • Donovan, Ken. “Slaves in Cape Breton, 1713-1815.” Directions: Canadian Race Relations Foundation 4, no. 1 (summer 2007): 44-45.
  • Donovan, Ken. “Slavery and Freedom in Atlantic Canada's African Diaspora: Introduction.” Acadiensis 43, no. 1 (winter/spring 2014): 109-115.
  • Donovan, Ken. “Female Slaves as Sexual Victims in Ile Royale.” Acadiensis 43, no. 1 (winter/spring 2014): 147-156.
  • Games, Alison F. and Adam Rothman. “What is Atlantic History?” In Major Problems in Atlantic History: Documents and Essays, edited by Alison F. Games and Adam Rothman. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2008, 1-2.
  • Lane-Jonah, Anne Marie. “Everywoman's Biography: The Stories of Marie Marguerite Rose and Jeanne Dugas at Louisbourg.” Acadiensis 45, no. 1 (winter/spring 2016): 143-162.

Government Documents:

  • Cousineau, Jennifer and Meryl Oliver. “Introduction to Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, Nova Scotia.” Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office, Building Report 09-267.
  • Gallinger, Mikaela. “Chloe Cooley.” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Submission Report 2021-03.
  • Gelly, Alain. “Olivier Le Jeune (-1654).” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Submission Report 2021-02.
  • Gelly, Alain. “Marie Marguerite Rose (vers 1717-1757).” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Submission Report 2007-12.
  • Maheu-Bourassa, Alexie. “Mathieu Da Costa.” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Supplementary Report 2020-05.
  • Schwartz, Mallory. “The Enslavement of African People in Canada (c. 1629-1834).” Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Submission Report 2019-16.

Primary Sources:

  • Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. London: Olaudah Equano, 1789. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm
  • “Proces-Verbal de l'inventaire et vente des effets laissés par la nommée Roze négresse, femme de Baptiste, Indien, 27 aout 1757.” Fond des Colonies, Centre des Archives' d'Outre-Mer, G2, Dépôt des papiers publics des colonies; greffes judiciaires Baillage de Louisbourg, DPCC GR vol. 212, dossier 552, folio 2 verso and items 3 and 11.
  • Pierre Lapouble to Mme Jean Baptiste Laurent. 26 février 1757. Letter 30. Public Record Office
  • (PRO)/Admiralty 264-30. The National Archives, Kew, UK.
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