B.C. had a leper colony—lots of people know that—but even history mavens don’t know about the William Head Quarantine Station, off-limits to the public to this day.
January 25th, 2014
You’ve heard of Ellis Island, the processing station in New York harbour for millions of immigrants who came to America by sea. Possibly you’ve heard of Lawlor’s Island in Halifax or Grosse Isle in Quebec, two Canadian equivalents.
The latter quarantine station processed half a million Irish immigrants from 1832 to 1848. Five thousand never made if off the island, most of them detained to prevent the spread of typhus.
Located southwest of Victoria, on William Head Peninsula, the equivalent West Coast quarantine centre named William Head Station is, by comparison, almost completely forgotten. As maritime immigration to Canada diminished in the Fifties, in favour of air travel, the site was transformed into a minimum security prison in the Sixties. Nowadays it’s surprising to learn that this federal quarantine centre grew to hold up to 1,000 people in 42 buildings on a 43-hectare site until its closure in 1959.
Peter Johnson has collected the details of how West Coast officialdom prevented the spread of smallpox, cholera, typhus, and polio into the Canadian population from sea travelers in Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959 (Heritage $22.95), a follow-up to his Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride-Ships (TouchWood, 2002), a bestseller on B.C. Ferries, with overall sales eclipsing 18,000 copies.
The following interview with Peter Johnson was conducted by Mark Forsyth.
BCBOOKLOOK: Depending on where you were coming from, or your station in life, were you were treated differently if you were detained?
PJ: Yes, the whole quarantine system was arranged on the known and workable class system of the British Empire. It carried on. You could be first class—aristocracy; second class—sons of aristocracy; third class—the middle class; or else the poor sods in steerage.
BCBL: Was it also used as a tool for exclusion?
PJ: No question. The politics of privilege and the economics of indifference kept Ottawa from taking on its responsibility. Part of the contract of joining confederation was that the federal government would provide British Columbia with quarantine services. Well, it never did.
In 1871, when B.C. joined Canada, there wasn’t even a federal quarantine office here. It took almost another twenty years for Ottawa to get its act together —they were shamed into it by a little white girl that died without access to any kind of station whatsoever. Certainly the politics of indifference played a role and also the history of racial prejudice. The Chinese were clobbered with a head tax, and in 1903 it doubled to 500 dollars. Often quarantine legislation was used to support policies of deportation or policies of racism. That’s a common theme that runs throughout the book.
BCBL: There were times when quarantine was necessary, and sorting out where it’s needed and where it’s not is part of the journey for you in this book as well?
PJ: Yes, it certainly is. Think of the times, the germ theory had only been around for 10-15 years. Germs were thought to be caused by miasma, not bacteria. A doctor at the bottom of a gangplank checking a vaccination certificate would have to, within a second say, “Were you anywhere near or associated with this person who is ill?” Then take a temperature, look into the eyes and see that general influenza wasn’t there, but, in fact, it was smallpox. And so there were several missed cases because physicians simply didn’t have the diagnostic traditions we have today. I’m surprised that so many were held and it worked. Some of the ones that were missed, of course, went on to generate horrific outbreaks in Vancouver and other places, which brought the whole quarantine station into some question.
BCBL: And this affected our international relationship with Seattle where they said, “We won’t accept ships from Vancouver because we can’t be assured we’re not also importing disease.”
PJ: We didn’t have adequate quarantine legislation. We started from ground zero far too late to be of any real benefit in the last ten years of the 19th century. But, by the Twenties, by God, British Columbia had its act together. When the Albert Head Station closed for letting too many people slip by with infectious diseases, William Head was rebuilt and it did a fine job.
BCBL: As you traced the history of quarantine in B.C., you also tell us about the Chinese Labour Corps. Who were these people and what was their role in World War I?
PJ: There had been precedents for organized movement of indentured Chinese labourers all throughout the 19th century—such as the California gold rush, the CPR railway and the Boer War. And the war in the Balkans needed Chinese labourers. It was as beneficial both to China to send labourers to the European theatre of war as it was for Britain, who needed them. But it was such a sad episode.
The new Chinese government—after the abduction of the Empress in the last dynasty of the Manchus—thought that if they helped Europe with their war, then perhaps Europe would help rid them of the Japanese. They thought one would automatically give back the other. Of course it never happened.
BCBL: What were the jobs of the Chinese Labour Corps?
PJ: They did everything from repairing tanks to working in steel and chemical plants, loading and unloading ships at port, shoring up the trenches, building huts and sandbagging, railway lines. The Chinese Labour Corps—about 96,000 of them, they think—really enabled the front lines to keep going. It took a year to organize everything. The Brits didn’t tell the Chinese what they were doing because China was neutral. China never entered the First World War until August of 1917.
BCBL: They were put into some extremely dangerous situations.
PJ: They would come from three routes: from around Capetown to the Western Front, through the Suez Canal, and around the Horn to Vancouver. And when they did get to France, it was an absolute horror. They landed at Dunkirk and were fired upon. They were gassed as they moved along the line from the Somme to Ypres, and they were involved in whatever front line attacks were going on.
They were a noncombatant force! They were called the Chinese Labour Corps, and that was Churchill’s idea because if we recruit men in the regular army from the hinterlands of the Chinese Mongolian frontier, that’ll break Chinese neutrality, so let’s pretend they are a volunteer force and call them a labour corps.
BCBL: Just providing a service…
PJ: Providing a service. And we’ll pay them 30 cents a day, whereas a regular soldier would make $1.30 a day. I have to hand it to the British War office, as they really organized this fast. Think of it: little Chinese villages on the northern frontier, they wouldn’t be interested in fighting in Europe. Europe was a war-mad continent as far as the Chinese peasants were concerned, but somehow they would recruit thousands of Chinese peasants, many of them illiterate.
BCBL: And when they arrived on B.C. shores, some were quarantined. Or else they had to travel across the country in sealed railway cars.
PJ: That’s how the Prime Minister waived the head tax. If we keep them in sealed trains, there won’t have to be a head tax. The other reason was not to let the Chinese community across the country know what they were doing. The Chinese communities, still embittered by the CPR not living up to the agreement of paying them properly after the building of the railway, could have notified the Chinese Labour Corps on the trains, telling them to get the hell out. They were also afraid that the Germans might catch on to this.
And so they came by ship. Fifty to sixty days from China, another ten days waiting in a sealed part of William Head Quarantine Station. A quarantine station was constructed to handle 1,000 people and many of those would be in tents. Suddenly, by August of 1917, there were 30,000 Chinese labourers at William Head. It was a horror story. They filed out into the community of Metchosin and stole doors and fence posts to lie on, to keep them out of the rain, and raided the gardens for food. There were food riots.
BCBL: How many of these labourers transmitted through Canada and came back?
PJ: Numbers vary, I would say a minimum of 84,000 went across Canada, probably 40,000 of those came back to William Head, and they got rid of them as fast as they could. I think the official position was, “Let’s get this over as fast as we can.” It became a terrible footnote to the enormity and pity of the First World War.
BCBL: Why is it important to acknowledge that now?
PJ: For the longest time, the Chinese community in B.C. and Canada, had suffered the brunt of racist policies, both in the administration of quarantine and the general racist policies. The Chinese community wants the rest of Canada to know that many Chinese Labourers worked on behalf of the allies, and supported what was a horrific, losing battle on the Western Front.
They are as much Canadians by virtue of that, and other acts in Canada, as any other immigrant group. So it’s, in a way, an attempt to manifest some sort of great levelling. We are you. You are us. We are all the same. I think immigration history is about that…and it’s very interesting because of the Komagata Maru incident in Vancouver in 1911. The Indians are holding a memorial to that this spring.
So it’s really important that immigrant races tell their story. We’re all immigrants.
BCBL: Is it possible to make some kind of estimate as to how many people actually were buried at William Head?
PJ: Somewhere, there might be a compiled list or a record (death certificates) of all those who died at William Head, but I never came across it directly, because I was really more interested in the politics of the station (federal indifference, patronage, class-ism, racism, and the successful, if subversive, leaps [made at William Head] in the treatment of infectious diseases. Its failures were the failures of people, not the virulence of contagious diseases.
Mark Forsythe is Host of BC Almanac, CBC Radio, Noon – 1:00 pm