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Leprosy and D'Arcy Island

The Gulf Islands are jewels of natural beauty in a province already famous for its stunning geography. Dotted throughout the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, they offer near-supernatural sights of the forest, sea and mountains. Some are home to small communities of people; festive villages of markets, bookshops and galleries. Others are less developed, with unpaved roads and few permanent residents. While many have long been beacons, even havens of sorts, for artists, writers and travellers, one Gulf Island harbours a very dark, very shameful history.

At a modest 83 acres and accessible only by private or chartered watercraft, D’Arcy Island is, at first glance, a paradise of pebbled beaches and crescent-shaped shores. The island is part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and is a destination popular with ambitious kayakers and backcountry campers. It’s a seemingly pristine place and only a short distance from the Greater Victoria area, but just over 100 years ago, it was the site of exile for dozens of individuals suffering from leprosy.

Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, is defined by the Centre for Disease Control as an “infection caused by [a] slow-growing bacteria.” The devastating illness causes disfigurement, paralysis and, even, blindness in those it afflicts. Though it has since been proven to be quite slow-spreading, it is, perhaps, the visual nature of the disease, the evidence on the bodies of those it affects, that shaped the earlier idea of it being highly contagious.

Such thinking contributed to the seizure of five Chinese men from Victoria’s Chinatown in March of 1891. The men--all suffering from leprosy--were living together in a shack and upon discovery by city officials keen to prevent the spread of the disease, were soon taken to nearby D’Arcy Island. At times referred to as a leprosarium or lazaretto--both names for hospitals designed to treat lepers--and, even, a colony, the truth of the little island in the Salish Sea was something much less official and much more sinister.

Over the next 15 years, D’Arcy Island would house tens of lepers, all men and, aside from one, all Chinese. After being brought to the island, the men had almost no one to rely on than one another. A steamer with a health official, interpreter and sanitary inspector would come to D’Arcy once every three months to provide examinations and supplies, including food and, also, coffins. A six-unit rowhouse served as accommodation, though some built small dwellings of their own. A few tried to escape, but the conditions of the water and its distance from civilization made it almost impossible to do so. Expelled from society with no treatment, no end to their suffering, it was a hopeless situation for the men to endure and one that journalist C.H. Gibbons, who visited the island once, described as a “living death.” 

Of course, the circumstances of disease and ostracism were awful enough, but the history of D’Arcy Island is that much more horrible because it was born out of racism. Another leprosarium existed in Canada at the time--Tracadie. Although its predecessor, the Sheldrake leper colony, was a similarly horrid example of exilement, Tracadie, in New Brunswick, was a more humane place. Run by the Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, the medical staff, including doctors and nurses, attended compassionately to their charges--who were predominantly caucasian.

Existing at the same time, lepers throughout the country would be sent either to Tracadie or D’Arcy, with the only deciding factor being race. Appalling, but perhaps unsurprising, this era in Canadian history was rife with examples of racist policies and treatment of Chinese people. Aside from the head tax which sought to deter immigration from China, those that did live in Canada faced prejudice in land ownership, employment opportunities and voting rights. Of course, the contributions of the Chinese community in the country--including both culturally and in the growth of the province through their work building the CPR line--were conveniently disregarded when the government decided to exile those suffering from leprosy to a lonely Gulf Island.

From the inception of the island’s use in 1891 to 1906, the site was run without intervention from the federal government. At that point, they took control of D’Arcy and outfitted the location with new facilities, hiring caregivers and operating under an open policy for who would be treated. The lazaretto would be moved to Bentinck Island in 1924 and function as a treatment centre until it was permanently closed in the mid-50s. The government would eventually burn the remaining buildings on D’Arcy Island, leaving little evidence of its history.

Today, a small plaque exists on the island commemorating the men who died there. Still, it is hard to imagine their lives and fully grasp the isolation and desperation they must have felt. The cobble beaches and picturesque coves, so representative of the beauty of the west coast are at odds with the horrors of the island’s history--a lesson on how every place, no matter how unassuming, has a story that deserves to be told.


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