You never know what amazing bit of history you’ll find in your own backyard. Whether it’s that your favorite little get-away once hosted a terribly botched hanging, or in this case, the fact that a quaint little island used to house exiled lepers. Such was the case when Jason and I paddled out to D’arcy island to visit what’s left of the housing on the island.
At the turn of the last century, D’arcy Island, a remote patch of land off Vancouver Island, was prison to a handful of Chinese people suffering from leprosy. They were marooned there to die. Today, the island is a park, its history buried with the forgotten Chinese men — and one woman — whose bones lie beneath the feet of its visitors.When the first case of leprosy appeared among Chinese railway labourers in the early 1890s, civil officials panicked. Although medical officials knew that leprosy is not seriously contagious, the victims were banished to the virtually “escape-proof” D’Arcy Island. Their only contact with the outside world was the visit of a supply ship every three months bringing food, clothing, opium and coffins. The dying were to bury the dead themselves.
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. – Helen Keller
The conditions for the Chinese on D’Arcy Island contrasted starkly with conditions at Canada’s other lazaretto (leper hospital, named after the Biblical leper, Lazarus) in Tracadie, N.B., where nuns looked after the patients, a physician was resident and meals were prepared by a cook.
The connection between these two lazaretto’s is a dark saga in Canadian history. White Canadian leprosy patients from across the country were sent to Tracadie, but a leprous Chinese, from anywhere in Canada, would go to D’Arcy Island.