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Interview with author Peter Johnson

1. Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872–1959 recounts the story of William Head Quarantine Station and the thousands of forgotten people who arrived on our shores only to be felled by disease in an era when medical care was unsophisticated at best and attitudes toward the poor and the sick were often narrow minded. Can you tell us a little about the impetus for this project?

Two events came together as I was finishing Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride-Ships (TouchWood Editions, 2002), which placed the quarantine story almost in my lap.

Three of the women from the bride-ships died from infectious diseases as they sailed to Victoria in the 1860s. Elizabeth Buchanan died on board the Tynemouth, probably of smallpox, two days before the ship reached the Falkland Islands in August 1862. Two others had caught tuberculosis en route on the Robert Lowe and died in the naval hospital in Victoria in January 1863. In Victoria at the time, there was no special quarantine facility for the wholesale treatment of immigrants arriving with contagious disease. More surprising was the fact that the other passengers simply fanned out into Victoria without any special medical follow-up. That I thought strange.

The other event was my visit, in the summer of 2000, to the Grosse Île Quarantine Station on the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec City. I was really moved by the size and scope of the Grosse Île Station. The role it played in containing cholera among Irish immigrants in the 1840s was so significant that I felt, surely, Victoria could not have been so ignorant toward the threat of contagion from waves of immigrants who were just beginning to arrive in British Columbia.

So, the clear threat of infectious diseases in Canada in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the government’s response, and the notable lack of facilities in Victoria left me thinking, “Why not?” Besides, writing Voyages of Hope was such fun that this damn conundrum niggled at me to find out more even before the ink on a previous manuscript had dried.

2. What was the research process like for this book? Were there any unique challenges?

Researching Quarantined was intriguing right from the beginning. Teaching history to high school kids at the time made me perhaps too aware of connecting historical dots together for them in order for the subject to be clear.

The story of Victoria’s William Head Quarantine Station had no such logic; it was like an opera gone berserk. Five or six separate tales converged, like the spokes of a wheel to its hub, and each carried significant weight. For a start, I discovered there was a huge quarantine station here, at least as large as Grosse Île, but it became a federal prison in 1959, so getting access was difficult. Its massive presence in its buildings, wharf, organization, and role was hidden and lost to public scrutiny for over twenty-five years by prison guards and institutional walls.

With precious little from the Internet and a dearth of academic papers on the subject, I caught the “infection” and went to the National Archives in Ottawa. After that I was doomed. Summer breaks saw me travelling BC and beyond, following leads for people to interview and quaint, little museums to investigate. Winters were filled with strange, wonderful, readings from myriad medical texts. I’m not a good tourist and wouldn’t lay on a beach if paid any amount, so this was better. My students began to ask me what the hell I was doing, as my classroom filled with papers. Gleefully, I would tell them. Their interest and enthusiasm kept me going.

The unique challenge was getting into the William Head Penitentiary for several visits. Undergoing a full body search would have been an understatement. However, Margaret Roper of the Metchosin Museum and I prevailed, and in the end they were most helpful.

3. For readers eager to learn more about this period of history, do you have any recommended reading? Or places you can recommend for them to visit?

Quarantine history is such a fascinating topic because it incorporates such wide social issues. Issues of quarantine are largely issues of class, economics, and race as infectious diseases still haunt the dispossessed. But it is, too, a story full of creative men of goodwill, whose instincts and knowledge were inspired.

I recommend:

  • Michael Bliss, Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991).
  • Ian Cameron, Quarantine: What Is New Is Old (Halifax: New World Publishing, 2005). [The story of Lawlor’s Island Quarantine Station in Halifax.]
  • Valerie Green, Above the Stairs: Social Life in Victoria, 1845-1918 (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1995).
  • Marion Helgeson, Footprints: Pioneer Families in Metchosin (Victoria: Metchosin School Museum Society, 1983).
  • John Kelly, The Great Mortality: A History of the Black Death (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
  • Charles Lillard. Seven Shillings a Year. (Victoria: Horsdal & Schubart, 1993).
  • Allan Marble, Surgeons, Smallpox and the Poor (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1991).
  • Marianna O’Gallagher and Rose Masson Dompierre, Eyewitness: Grosse Île, 1847  (Montreal: Carraig Books, 1995).
  • Chris Yorath, A Measure of Virtue (Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2000). [The story of the D’Arcy Island leper colony.]
  • Mark Zuelke, Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons (Vancouver: Whitecap Books,1994). [Fascinating story of remittance men in the Canadian West.]

4. On the back cover of this book it says this story has “as much relevance today as it did more than a hundred years ago.” Can you expand on that thought? What lessons do you think readers can/should take from this book?

As you well know, new and virulent infectious diseases (SARS, AIDS, Norwalk, etc.) are back with a vengeance. In a time when bacteria and viruses have readily evolved a resistance to the “wonder-drug” antibiotics of the past, we are threatened with a new kind of quarantine beyond the huge stations and facilities of old. Yet, the same darkness of the human heart that co-opted quarantine law as a pretext for social control still exists.

5. This is your third book. On top of writing, you’ve also taught history, English, and creative writing in high schools and colleges across Canada, as well as written and directed a documentary film. What’s your secret, and what advice do you have for other writers who have multiple passions?

As I used to tell my students, read! From reading comes a love of the written word, and that is critical. That, and just plain dumb, old curiosity! Read how Michael Bliss or George Orwell or Margaret Atwood tell stories that blow your socks off and learn from them. Read widely.

Then, curiosity being what it is, begin a diary, write a blog, send a letter to a newspaper, or do a short article. Writing is like playing a musical instrument: if it ain’t fun, forget it. Even practising the piano or banjo can be compelling in a perverted sort of way, provided others aren’t around. After ten thousand hours, voila! A little discipline added to learned skill is very powerful.

Beyond that, you’ve simply got to feel, say, the pain of the Blues!

6. This book has some heart-breaking content, and no shortage of tragedy. Was it hard to tackle some of these subjects? And did you feel pressure to honour the victims of this time?

I can remember tears welling up as I was writing the story of little Bertha Whitney. In telling the stories of Joe Hwei Chun and Abraham Bercovich, I felt anger and shame. I kept thinking “There but for the grace of God or something, go I.” Yet, more than that, I was horrified at those who took advantage of the victims of infectious diseases and how close we are still to the malevolence of the human heart. In that sense, Quarantined was a difficult, sobering book to write.

There is a crude stone memorial, hidden among a copse of trees along Dallas Road in Victoria, commemorating little Bertha Whitney’s death in 1872. Some anonymous person who felt the pain of her innocent five years hammered this terse memorial to her on a boulder shortly after her untimely death in a nearby “pest house.” Were it not for the sacrifice of little Bertha Whitney and those like her, British Columbia would never have had a quarantine station when it did. I want to petition Victoria City Council and the provincial government to move that forgotten and neglected memorial to a more fitting place on the grounds of the Legislative Buildings.

Would you help me in this task?

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