British Columbia

How a small B.C. island can help us understand the role of racism in disease treatment

While B.C's D'Arcy Island may be the perfect pandemic getaway this summer, a researcher says its tragic history can show how racism continues to affect the way we treat diseases like COVID-19 today. 

Of the 49 men sent to D'Arcy Island, a leprosy colony, at least 17 died and 20 more were deported

D'Arcy Island, as seen by its west side by kayak. (Ebklassen/WikiCommons)

While D'Arcy Island, a picturesque island in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, may be the perfect pandemic getaway this summer, a researcher says the tragic history of the island illustrates how racism has informed the way we approach and treat diseases like COVID-19 for well over 100 years.

Renisa Mawani, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, has studied the history of the island, which was used as a leprosy colony between 1891 to 1924.

The first people sent to the island were five men from Victoria's Chinatown, who were deemed to have leprosy by a medical health inspector. 

"It wasn't until several years later that a doctor actually went to the island and confirmed that the men had leprosy," Mawani said. 

It was a particularly harsh environment. Unlike other leprosy colonies, D'Arcy Island had no doctors, no caretakers, and no caregivers. 

Mawani said the men were sent supplies every three months from Victoria, located 17 kilometres away, but were essentially left to take care of themselves.

D'Arcy Island is located east of the Saanich Peninsula, about 17 kilometres from Victoria, B.C. (University of British Columbia)

In total there were 49 men sent there, 44 of whom were Chinese. The lack of care, Mawani says, was part of the prevailing attitude toward Chinese settlers in Canada. Anti-Chinese racism was enshrined in law through 1885's Chinese Head Tax and 1923's Chinese Exclusion Act.

"These men — the Chinese men in particular — were sent to the island to die or to be deported, whichever came first," she said.

Eventually, 20 of these men were deported to China and at least 17 men died. In 1924, the remaining men were sent to nearby Bentinck Island, close to the William Head Quarantine Station. 

Echoes of the past

Mawani says the history of the island has some commonalities with the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Leprosy was associated with foreignness and with Chinese men in the 19th century, and today we see that COVID is also associated with China, and Chinese-ness," she said. 

"We've heard many racial slurs from President Trump but also we've seen rises in anti-Asian violence, and anti-Asian racism in Canada, the U.S., and globally."

When a disease is racialized, Mawani says, it can have a profound impact on how people are treated or cared for. In fact, a disproportionate number of COVID-related complications and deaths have affected Indigenous, Black and other communities of colour.

She says the history of the island can help us understand how racism continues to affect the way we treat disease.

"We're encouraged to believe that we're all in this together, but we're not."

With files from All Points West