Friday, March 06, 2009

Death or Canada

Death or Canada. That's what they called it. P-Doug invited me to come with him to see it, and I remarked to him at the time, half in jest, that had the destination been the US, they probably would have come up with a less gloomy title; one that made the choice sound more palatable, even flattering. Death... or Canada. Well...

Of course, that's being flippant. The documentary, and the book that accompanies it, are actually about the arrival of about 38,000 Famine Irish in Toronto in the summer of 1847. Toronto, at the time, had a population of about 20,000. The documentary makes the point that an equivalent emergency in our own times would imply the introduction of nine or ten million people to this city in one season. And that of those, about a quarter of a million would die of typhus, or the like, in our midst.

It was showing last night at the Bloor Cinema around 7 p.m. There were brief presentations, before and afterward, by some of the people responsible for the film or getting the word about it out. The film itself was the story of the people who chose to flee Ireland for North America, and in particular, the tragic story of the Willis family, who departed as a family of seven, and whose story ended with only the mother surviving. Suddenly the title "Death or Canada" didn't seem like such a strange one to me anymore. Thousands died on the way over, and thousands more in isolation once they arrived. Conditions on the ships were such that one of the presenters said it's less surprising that so many died, as it is that so many actually survived.

It's also the story of colonial reactions to the influx. Some people fled the city for the safety of lodging with rural relatives. But others, doctors, nurses, public officials, and even Toronto's first Catholic bishop, an Irish Nova Scotian named Michael Power, died in the service of the sick and dying, while scores of others risked their lives.

Today, at the foot of Bathurst Street, is Ireland Park, where statues by the Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie greet the new city with the emotions of the long-ago people they represent. Here, in stone quarried in County Kerry, Ireland, they are engraving the (known) names of the 1,100 or so Irish who died on the shores of Lake Ontario... currently about 675, but growing as research brings them to light.

On the way out, I bought the book, and we were all given a free copy of the inaugural issue of Irish Connections Canada (a re-inauguration of The Toronto Irish News, now going nation-wide). The documentary, in all its power and sobering impact, will be shown on The History Network on March 16th, on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.

The presenters included Eamonn O'Loghlin, the editor of Irish Connections Canada; Professor Mark McCowan, who wrote the book the started the project; Robert G. Kearns, Chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation; and two others whose names for the moment escape me, but who I will fill in as soon as I'm able.

N.B. (March 9) Much to my embarrassment, the producer himself has reminded me of the names of the two others on stage that evening. They were Dr. Donald Low of Mt. Sinai Hospital and the film's executive producer, Craig Thompson. I searched for the Doctor's name but most of my searches brought up the name of a SARS doctor here in Toronto who died in the effort to defeat the disease, rightly garnering him much mention (that unfortunately obscured the search for Dr. Low's name). I'd like to thank Mr. Thompson for reminding me of the names I overlooked, and doing so with good grace. :)

2 comments:

J. Craig Thompson said...

Thanks for your post. The title "Death or Canada" was drawn from Irish newspapers during the famine era which proclaimed that the Irish faces a choice between "certain death or in Ireland or emigration to Canada"

The other presesnters on the stage were Dr. Donald Low of Mt. Sinai Hospital and the film's exucutive producer, Craig Thompson.

Lone Primate said...

How embarrassing. :) Thank you, Mr. Thompson, and my apologies.