Contributed by Ken Quinn
Canada is a land of immigrants. Long before it came into being, the Irish were making their way to the new lands. In particular there was a significant influx of immigrants in 1832 and 1847. As a result, a quarantine station was established at Grosse Île, an island in the St. Lawrence River just east of Quebec City that was in use as a quarantine station until 1932. Today it is sacred ground and a tourist destination, with thousands succumbing to typhus mere kilometres from reaching Canadian land and quickly buried there. In Montreal at the foot of the Victoria Bridge, in an industrial area, sits a giant rock erected in 1859 by the workers constructing the bridge as a monument to the more than 6,000 mainly Irish people buried in mass graves in the area, victims of “ships fever”, or typhus.
My family history is similar to that of many Quebecers. There is a mixture of French Canadian, English Canadian, along with immigrant communities such as Irish, Scottish, and German- speaking Serbian. Branches of my family have been in Canada longer than Canada has been a country and some as late as 1920 and 1930.
What is consistent throughout my family’s history is that immigration came with sacrifice. Often families would stagger their travels so that one parent would set sail with their younger children, followed by older children, and then the other parent with the remaining children after saving enough money to pay for everyone’s passage. One thing is certain in my family history, they didn’t travel First Class. I cannot imagine travelling on the Atlantic Ocean for weeks before landing either in Halifax or Quebec City.
Growing up I always identified as being of Irish descent over being Scottish or of Germano-Serbian descent. I am involved in Montreal’s Irish community thanks to the foundation laid by those family members who came before me. And it is through people such as my great uncle, Patrick Quinn, as well as my Aunt Elizabeth Quinn and my father, Joseph Quinn, as well as several dozen cousins that we have actively participated in the organization of the annual St. Patrick’s Parade in Montreal through the United Irish Societies of Montreal, over which four Quinns have presided, and three have been honoured as parade Grand Marshals.
My family doesn’t seem to have historic ties to the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal, founded in 1834 and the oldest national society in Quebec, which organized the annual parade from 1834 into the 1890s. Today it is a registered charity that raises money to disburse back into the community. My own involvement with the Society only extends to 2013. Currently serving as its president, to date I am the only member of my family to lead this storied organization.