New Brunswick

Art project reveals story of long-lost Acadian leprosy colony

An underpopulated island eight miles from Chatham, once used for New Brunswick’s first leprosy colony, will be the subject of an upcoming art project.

Little-known Sheldrake Island, once ‘a prison,' will be subject of Canada 150 art project

For five years, lepers lived in isolation on Sheldrake Island on the Miramichi River. (Contributed/Andrew King)

A largely abandoned island eight miles from Chatham, once used for New Brunswick's first leprosy colony, will be the subject of an upcoming art project.

"Leprosy was a problem in the Acadian Peninsula going back to the late 18th century," said Concordia University history professor Ronald Rudin.

"By the 1840s, the decision was made to effectively round up known cases of leprosy in Tracadie and areas south of that and send them to Sheldrake Island."

Soon, the island was "like a prison," he said.

"There wasn't any serious consideration of whether they would be looked after or that their conditions would get better," Rudin said. "The idea was simply to get them out of the way."

Discrimination and imprisonment

Part of the problem, he said, was discrimination by English-speaking officials against Acadians.

"There was a lot of misunderstanding about what caused leprosy and how to deal with it," Rudin said. "It was often referred to in the early 19th century in English-speaking New Brunswick as 'the Acadian disease.'"

"It's hard to ignore the fact that there was an English-speaking majority on the local board of health that badly wanted to isolate people on that island," Rudin said.

Of the 44 people with leprosy housed in rough, unheated buildings from 1844-1849 on Sheldrake Island, 15 are buried there. Many of their surnames are still common today on the Acadian Peninsula: Comeau, Benoit, Landry and Breau.

But for over a century, that story has remained largely untold.

National recognition

Sheldrake Island will be the subject of an art installation and short documentary film to be unveiled this summer, Rudin said. The Lost Stories Project received $235,000 from the Canada 150 fund to create a series of four artworks and films.

Photographer Marika Drolet-Ferguson will create an art piece to be installed on the church grounds in Bartibog, N.B. overlooking the island, which is largely inaccessible except by boat. Drolet-Ferguson plans to photograph the island in all seasons to give viewers a sense of what life was like for those imprisoned there.

The idea behind the doc is that the art project will "unfold in front of the camera," according to Rudin.

"We didn't want a fully formed idea," he said. "Part of the project is to give the public the idea of what happens when an artist tells these stories in a public space."

The Island was the only story selected from the Atlantic region.

The art will be unveiled at a public event in Miramichi on July 19, 2017 — commemorating the date when the first people were sent to the Island, said Rudin.

Then the film will be available on on Dec.1.


With files from Information Morning Saint John