by Sylvie Tremblay, Library and Archives Canada
The same ships used to export lumber (the port of Québec's main commercial activity) to the British Isles, transported emigrants from the
British Isles to North America. Travelling conditions were arduous and often had
tragic consequences. Many immigrants fell ill and died at sea. Others, particularly
young children and the elderly, arrived at their destination in a pitiful state
of health. Québec hospitals and their medical staff were rapidly overwhelmed.
In 1803, the British Parliament passed the first of a
series of laws intended to regulate the transportation of immigrants, to protect
emigrants on board ships from abuse by transportation companies, such as exorbitant
rates and poor sanitary conditions. The Passenger Act imposed better conditions
relating to hygiene, food and comfort for passengers travelling to North America.
However, this law was not always rigorously applied by ship captains and the spread
of contagious diseases accelerated.
Around 1826, Asiatic cholera appeared in India, reached
Moscow, and finally spread to France and the British Isles. Aware that this disease
would eventually reach Quebec, the Société des immigrants de Québec
(Quebec Immigrants' Society), founded in 1818 and the only charitable organization
providing assistance to immigrants, considered limiting immigration and even prohibiting
it. Since it lacked the authority, the society reminded the government authorities
of existing laws relating to passengers, and of its responsibility to provide
assistance to immigrants. In 1832, confronted by the real danger of an epidemic,
the government of Lower Canada passed the Quarantine Act, and built a quarantine
station on Grosse-Île on the St. Lawrence River, downstream from Québec.
There was a quarantine station at Pointe-Lévy, however it was unsuitable
during an epidemic because of its proximity to the city. By laying down strict
control measures for ships from Europe, the authorities expected that they could
protect the local population from the disease.