The Ghosts of D’Arcy Island

Just off the coast of our peaceful seaside community, unquiet ghosts rage against the gods in the morning mist. Our wild West Coast beauty harbours a very ugly piece of human history. D’Arcy Island was a leper colony from 1891 to 1924. It housed society’s untouchables: the soiled and diseased ones – shoved away into an alien landscape far from any human contact. The lepers were tossed into isolation, forgotten and abandoned and left to rot and die under an unforgiving sky. This was racism at its poisonous peak. We have come a long way from those dark days of social malfeasance. Or have we?

The two D’Arcy Islands are located about five miles off the Peninsula coastline: “Big D’Arcy” is a marine provincial park; “Little D’Arcy” is privately owned. Both islands hosted the leper colony and are simply named together as D’Arcy Island. The notorious lazaretto was established in 1891 by the municipal council of Victoria, B.C. One infamous day in 1891, Victoria’s Police and Health officers found five unfortunate Chinese men riddled with leprosy in the damp back alleys of Chinatown. In a knee-jerk, self-serving racist reaction designed to curry public favour, the frenzied public officials acted quickly to get the province’s OK to dump the lost souls on D’Arcy Island. Prejudice is malignant; the locals happily waved goodbye to their sick neighbours: “More repulsive human beings would be hard to imagine.” (Daily Colonist, May 21, 1891).

The graphic details from our public library history collections bear a horrific resemblance to the Holocaust, where Jews had no escape from their ghastly fate. The same newspaper article talks about a guard placed at the internment house on Fisgard Street to rein in the objectors. One Chinese detainee attempted suicide. Damned and cursed by society, the sick men knew that they were going to D’Arcy Island to die.

Around May, 1891, the afflicted were sent to the gulf island death chamber. Until 1924, a total of 49 Chinese lepers were shipped to D’Arcy Island. Many died there. They were stockpiled there like pieces of lumber, and left to fend for themselves. Every three months, a supply ship came with food – and coffins. Ramshackle huts were built as a futile defense against harsh ocean winds and winter storms.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, is caused by a bacterium. Contrary to popular belief, it is not very contagious and is quite treatable in the early stages. Untreated, the disease ravages the body, leaving horrible deformities, swelling of tissue causing suffocation and the loss of toes and fingers. Those severely ill, crippled human beings on D’Arcy Island received no medical care or medicine at all to relieve their suffering. Circa 1898, Dr. Ernest Hanington of Victoria writes a heart-rending account of the desperate souls condemned to a living hell amongst the sea waves and green fields of paradise: “The wretched beings, some in the last stages of the disease … lined up on the beach and cried like children when we were leaving.”

Racism, prejudice and discrimination are the rotten epicentre of most human transgressions. Hatred of the Chinese was rampant in the 1890s. White workers on the coast felt threatened by Chinese immigrants who outworked and outdid them on the railroads and in the mines. There was no political incentive to help the victims of D’Arcy Island. While Chinese lepers were sentenced to a grim West Coast death, those afflicted with leprosy at a New Brunswick colony were given humane medical care in a hospital setting by the federal government. Why? Because they were Caucasian. 

This unspeakable travesty finally came to an end in 1905, when B.C. got a share of the federal “head-tax” money to improve things on D’Arcy Island. In 1906, the feds passed the “Leprosy Act” and turned the leper colony into a true medical facility with proper care of the stricken. Eventually there were medicines for the lepers and all residents were allowed to return to China. In 1924, the D’Arcy colony was closed for good, ending a shameful chapter in Canadian history. The days of infamy were over.

In 2012, we like to pretend that this kind of inhumanity to innocent people is a thing of the past, but it still exists in Canada, albeit in more covert forms. The essence of racism and discrimination is seeing certain groups of people as less-than-human, as being less deserving of the same daily dignities, rules and rights afforded to other more “human” beings. Prejudice and stigma objectify and dehumanize the target. The effects of discrimination on affected individuals can be catastrophic. Stigma and discrimination  are alive and well in our communities, whether the focus is aboriginals, the disabled, poor people or those with physical and mental illnesses. But we can choose not to perpetuate or accept this status quo. In fact, we can choose to end it.

We need to keep the tragic victims of D’Arcy Island alive in our hearts. They will remind us that we can never give up the fight to eradicate racism and prejudice from our communities. In my opinion, it starts with each and every one of us making a difference in our own lives. Prejudice and discrimination will wither and die when each one of us takes responsibility to challenge them at every opportunity that comes our way. The next time you hear or read anything that slurs and insults someone for being part of a marginalized group, stand up and say “No, that is wrong.” Complacency breeds intolerance. Active opposition destroys it.

The ghosts of D’Arcy Island are watching us as a red sun lingers over a blue green utopia. They are listening … and they are waiting.

By  Doreen Marion Gee

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