Our Zoom presentation of March 29, 2023, attended by over 100 participants, featured noted author Michael McBane. Michael, a staunch advocate for public health care and improved public services, was the first recipient of the Social Justice award from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. His extensive research, including personal letters, memoirs, proceedings of the Legislature and the British Parliament and contemporary newspaper coverage painted a vivid picture of the typhus outbreak in Bytown in 1847. Michael pointed out that the events can be seen as the coalescence of three different stories: the story of the Great Irish Famine, the story of early Bytown, and the remarkable story of Élisabeth Bruyère.
The Great Famine, 1845 – 1852, was focused on Ireland’s poorest people in the west and south of the island and resulted in the death of approximately 1,000,000 and created about 1,900,000 refugees. The worst year of the famine, 1847, also known as “Black 47”, alone saw 100,000 emigrants to British North America, with 20,000 of these dying on the voyage. British North America was a convenient destination, as lumber ships crossing to the British Isles did not want to return empty, and the Irish made a ready cargo. Michael discussed the three prevailing views on why the famine was so deadly. The Nationalist view that the famine was primarily politically motivated and should be considered as a genocide perpetrated against the Irish people by the Government of the United Kingdom; the Revisionist view that the famine was primarily a natural occurrence and that little blame can be placed on the politicians of the day, and finally, the post-Revisionist view that the famine resulted from a combination of factors including poor economic practices and political mishandling.
Michael described Bytown in the 1840s as a rough-and-tumble town of about 5,000. Though small, it was both physically and socially divided. Uppertown, to the west of the Rideau Canal, was primarily powerful, prosperous and Protestant, while Lowertown was primarily a mix of the poorer Irish and French Catholic working class. Bytown and the greater Ottawa Valley was an attractive destination for Irish immigrants. The Irish had come to the area in several waves, including veterans of Wellington’s army after the Napoleonic wars and the workers involved in the building of the Rideau Canal. The Ottawa Valley had become an Irish diaspora. These strong family ties would become critical to the survival of many of those who fled the famine in Ireland only to find that a plague had accompanied them.
In 1845, the 27 year old Élisabeth Bruyère came to Bytown, leading a small party of Sisters of the Grey Nuns of Montreal. Highly motivated, skilled and organized, the Sisters soon recognized the needs of the community, which lacked any social services at that time. In response, they soon opened the General Hospital, a home for the aged, an orphanage, a bilingual school, and were delivering home services to the poor. Michael read part of a letter to us from Élisabeth Bruyère written in May 1847 which revealed her awareness of the looming tragedy, her fears for her own life, and her steadfast commitment to care for all those who needed it.
The typhus outbreak began in Bytown in June 1847 as the Irish refugees arrived. They came from Montreal, either up the Ottawa River, or up the St. Lawrence to Kingston and then along the Rideau Canal, journeys of between 3 and 7 days. The immigrants were packed onto barges, standing room only, and towed by steamboat. This profit-driven treatment of the newcomers was stated by one observer as being “shameful cruelty”.
Élisabeth Bruyère had prepared. She had opened a temporary hospital, which would grow to three wards and accommodate 60 patients. Each ward was staffed by a French nurse, an Irish nurse, and two volunteers. When the refugees arrived they entered one of four Fever Sheds, which Michael pointed out were located approximately where the National Arts Centre is today. The Sisters bathed, shaved and deloused all the newcomers, transferring the most serious cases by cart to their temporary hospital. When the Fever Sheds became full, military tents on Barracks Hill, now Parliament Hill, held the overflow. As no one else would handle the Irish newcomers, the Sisters not only cared for the living, but for the dead as well. The Sisters placed them into coffins, gave them funeral services, and transported them to the cemetery, now MacDonald Gardens Park.
Though the community grew in general to admire and support the work of the Sisters, there were those who found fault. Three Protestant Ministers accused the Sisters of proselytizing, apparently because one patient did convert to Catholicism during their treatment. Michael pointed out however, that it seems likely that the real motivation behind the complaint was that the work was being headed by a Catholic, and even worse, a young woman.
A year later, the epidemic had passed and the temporary hospital was closed. Of the 531 victims of all faiths treated in the hospital, 163 had died, with over 400 dying in the community as a whole. The Sisters had 17 of their number infected, but fortunately (miraculously?), none died. A Presbyterian minister, Reverend William Durie, who worked closely with the Sisters, did however die from typhus and is now buried in Beechwood Cemetery. With the crisis now passed, the government refused to repay the Sisters for their expenses, roughly £925, claiming them to be “unnecessary and extravagant”. Public admiration of the heroic work done by the Sisters and sympathy for their cause was reflected in the Bytown Packet, now the Ottawa Citizen, which encouraged voters to take out their anger with the government at the polls in the upcoming election. Three days later, the bill was paid, but the government was still defeated.
Michael suggested that the compassion shown by the community, as led by Élisabeth Bruyère, established a standard of behaviour to newcomers that is reflected to this day. Their commitment may well be seen in Ottawa’s welcome to the newcomers from South East Asia through Project 4000, and by Canadians as a nation when we welcome refugees from Syria and the Ukraine.