Irish Memorial Park now doubtful
Irish Memorial – Some 300 people walked to the Black Rock beside Victoria Bridge on May 28, horrified with the prospect of sacred ground being turned into an electrical substation. In recent days, news has broken about how Hydro Quebec is purchasing land just east of the rock that marks where some 6,000 Irish immigrants who died of typhus in 1847 were buried in a mass grave. Mayor Denis Coderre had promised the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation that he was turning the land into a park, commemorating the typhus victims.
For over 100 years, there has been an annual walk to the Black Rock, but this was the largest crowd ever. The procession left from St. Gabriel’s Parish in Pointe St. Charles, led by a bagpiper and flag bearers.. With police blocking traffic, the contingent walked through an industrial wasteland, arriving some 40 minutes later at the Black Rock. The rock itself sits awkwardly on the small median strip of Highway 112 on the approach to Victoria Bridge.
“This is not an ideal place for a monument,” noted march organizer Victor Boyle to a crowd that included such dignitaries as Mayor Coderre; Tom Mulcair (federal NDP leader); Marc Miller; ( local MP for Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœurs); Dominique Anglaide (local MNA, Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne); Geoff Kelley (MNA, Jacques Cartier); Benoit Dorais (Sud Ouest borough mayor); Craig Sauvé (Sud Ouest councillor);. Sterling Downey (Verdun councillor), and Christine Zachary Deom (Kahnawake Mohawk nation). St Gabriel’s priest Murray McCrory joined them shortly after.
Overall, the tone was conciliatory without overt hostility against mayor Coderre who was the Grand Marshall of the 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It is unclear for how long Coderre knew of Hydro’s plans. On Sunday, the mayor was loudly applauded when he addressed the crowd; he went on to optimistically say that “for sure, something will happen (to commemorate the victims),” while remaining vague on specifics.
Many of the speakers touched on similar themes about the tremendous significance of this place. Fleeing a the Potato Famine in Ireland, thousands of refugees crossed the Atlantic in “coffin ships” built to carry timber, not human passengers. Unhygienic onditions on board were a perfect breeding ground for typhus or “ship’s fever,” a usually fatal disease.
Those who made it to Canada often came down with typhus in the weeks that followed. In “Calcutta-like heat” that summer, Montreal was overwhelmed with the refugees who doubled the population of the city. Many volunteered to help the stricken immigrants, including then-mayor John Easton Mills who died from the typhus contagion.
The area beside Victoria Bridge was not the only mass grave; Montreal has the largest Potato Famine burial ground outside Ireland. But many refugees survived as Irish orphans were adopted by Québécois families. Today, an estimated 40% of Quebecers have Irish blood in their veins. The 1847 Irish refugee crisis was compared to the plight of Syrian refugees today.
With typical Irish hospitality, music was played at the Rock by Siamsa while Irish stew–courtesy of The Irish Embassy pub–awaited the crowd back at the parish hall.
Adjacent industrial terrain was promised for a park where the Black Rock would be moved to. Instead, Hydro Quebec will use the land to build a substation for the proposed $6 billion+ Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) electric train, a controversial “pet project” of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. While speakers at the 2017 Black Rock ceremony were all optimistic, it is unclear what compromise can be made at this point.