COVID racism stirs memories of Canada’s island leper colony

COVID racism stirs memories of Canada’s island leper colony
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Anti-Chinese racism in B.C. was common during this earlier era, and the conditions on D’Arcy island reflected that, said Mawani.

Patients in Canada’s other leper colony in Tracadie, N.B., were cared for by doctors and nuns.

But on D’Arcy Island, the men were “essentially left to die,” said Mawani. Supplies were dropped off once every three months. No medical care was provided, and residents, many of them weak from leprosy, had to bury their own dead.


“There was already a stigma associated with the disease,” said Mawani. “What we see with D’Arcy Island is that racism becomes a significant part of that stigma.”

In total, 49 men were sent to D’Arcy Island. Forty-three of them were Chinese. One was Japanese. Twenty men were eventually deported to China. Many of those who remained died on the island and were buried in unmarked graves. At least 18 men died on D’Arcy Island.

Mawani first heard about D’Arcy Island while conducting research for her 2009 book, “Colonial Proximities.” Combing through public health records and government documents at the Royal BC Museum, she saw just how closely officials linked leprosy to Chinese immigration at the time.

This link was deliberate, said Mawani.

“British Columbia didn’t have a very large white population … and so there was this concern about the fragility and the instability of the white community on the West Coast.”

At the time, Chinese men often worked closely with Indigenous women in salmon canneries, and some people grew concerned about this so-called “race mixing,” she said.

When Canadian newspapers published unfounded reports that Chinese men were spreading leprosy among Indigenous communities, the government officials used that as a reason to exile Chinese men, said Mawani.

“This was one way that government officials tried to separate these groups and prevent relations and solidarities between them in the interests of assuring colonial order and Canadian authority.”

While more overtly racist policies like the head tax and immigration exclusion acts are things of the past, disease is still often characterized in racial terms.

“This was true of leprosy … and also today with COVID-19,” said Mawani.

Indigenous people, Black people and communities of colour are reporting greater complications due to COVID-19 and higher rates of death, she said.

Canadians today may look back at the history of D’Arcy Island in shock, but Mawani wants people to think about how race continues to inform and shape how people experience diseases.

“In the current pandemic, we like to believe that we are all in this together, but we are not,” she said.

“What will future generations say about this?”

Mawani is giving an online talk about D’Arcy island at 1 p.m. PT on Thursday, July 30 as part of the One Hour @ UBC online lecture series.

Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii





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