Lawrie McFarlane: Capital should right a past wrong about treatment of leper population

In an era when statues of historical figures are being torn down, and whole chapters of our past critiqued through the lens of contemporary values, I have a suggestion to make.

Erect a monument at Victoria City Hall to mark the appalling treatment dealt out to Victoria’s leper population.

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Between 1891 and 1924, 49 Chinese-born lepers from the capital region were shipped to a small island against their will.

Many died there.

At the outset they had no roof over their heads, nor any other amenity. Lumber was dumped on the shore so they could build shacks. And every three months a ship brought meagre supplies. And coffins.

But there the story ended. The city council and residents of that period wanted nothing more to do with them.

True, there was cause for concern. Leprosy is an odd disease. It was first recorded in Egypt around 1550 BC, and until the 1870s was thought by some to be hereditary.

I say odd, because although bacterial, it’s very slow-moving, sometimes taking 20 years or more to create symptoms.

In days gone by, it was usually fatal, though a lucky few did survive — by the skin of their teeth, as the saying goes. (It’s been suggested this refers to the loss of tooth enamel in the later stages of the disease, though I have no proof of it.)

Leprosy (correctly, Hansen’s disease) can be treated successfully now with a combination of antibiotics, but there are still about180,000 people with the infection, worlwide.

Between two and 10 Canadians are diagnosed each year, though most arrived from countries where the ailment is still active.

The “treatment” in earlier times was basically shunning. During the Middle Ages, lepers had to ring handbells if anyone approached, cross to the other side of the road, and remain downwind.

The church where I was married in St. Andrews, Scotland, had a tiny window set into the two-foot thick stone walls where lepers could stand outside and hear the service.

But even those indignities pale in comparison with the treatment meted out right here in Victoria.

It’s true that D’Arcy Island (and its neighbour, Little D’Arcy) have been made part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

But although there are a handful of picnic tables, a pit toilet and a few wilderness camping spots, that’s about it. Of the original settlement only ruins remain, and scant few at that.

In the 1960s, the federal government had the lepers’ huts burned down. So much for preserving a historic site.

Some years ago the provincial government arranged a “pictorial display” at the site, and in 2000 then-Victoria mayor Alan Lowe had a small plaque placed there. Both are safely out of sight since the island can only be reached by private craft, and then with difficulty.

But otherwise this disgraceful incident has been ignored by the powers that be.

I need to make a distinction here. When Canada’s residential school system was set up by Sir John A. Macdonald, neither he nor his advisers foresaw what would follow. Yet his statue has been removed from the grounds of Victoria’s council building.

In contrast, the city fathers who set up the leper colony knew exactly what they were doing though they strove to dissemble, calling it at first a “garbage crematory.”

Council members even went so far, when the truth came out, as to promise they would visit the lepers and see to their needs. Of course, that never happened.

So here is a suggestion. Let our present city council make amends for this injustice.

Let Mayor Lisa Helps issue an apology for the deeds of her predecessors. If former prime minister Steven Harper could apologize for the disasters of the residential school system, Helps should do no less regarding the leper colony.

Then, let her erect a proper memorial at city hall — there’s even a vacant spot, where the statue of our first prime minister once stood.

That is what a decent city council, so filled with righting past wrongs, would do.

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