Quarantined – Peter Johnson

Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959

Peter Johnson explores nearly a century of infectious disease management (and mismanagement) in Victoria. His insightful account provides background and context for the rampant outbreak of smallpox that wiped out a third of the indigenous population on Vancouver Island.

I respect the fact that Johnson doesn’t sugar coat or whitewash the fact that settler culture was profoundly racist and classist. The early settlers’ perception of who was better than whom permeated every aspect of public policy – while quarantined rich white folks were put up in luxurious accommodations and catered to hand and foot, poor white folks were sent to the pest house to “die in a heap”, with no access to food, sanitation or medical care. Meanwhile, quarantined Chinese immigrants were put up in tents and told to fend for themselves. First Nations encampments near the city were burned to the ground, their residents dispersed to carry disease across the Island.

It’s a clear-eyed look at this aspect of Canadian history, packed with historical tidbits I had never even heard of, like the fact Victoria once had a leper colony at Bentinck Island.

Somewhere down the pipeline, there will be a song for five year old Bertha Whitney, whose sick parents watched her die without medical care in a pest house in 1872.

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