D'arcy Island – British Columbia - Atlas Obscura
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British Columbia

D'arcy Island

This small island has a dark past as a colony for Chinese lepers and a dropoff point for bootleggers.  

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Leprosy, a long-term bacterial infection, was once a scourge around the world until the medical advances of the mid-20th century. The disease has a robust history, and those who suffered from the disease were often shunned or oppressed in various ways throughout the ages.

A common practice, especially in Europe and in their colonies, was to isolate those infected. Canada initially had two leper colonies during the 19th-century. One was located on the east coast for caucasian Canadians at Tracadie, and D’arcy Island on the Pacific coast for Chinese immigrants. 

Health officials in Victoria discovered five Chinese lepers living together in early 1891 and decided to create this isolated colony. From 1891 to 1924, Chinese sufferers of leprosy in Canada were sent to D’arcy Island, no matter where they may have previously resided. The leper colony was not manned by nurses or priests, forcing residents to care of themselves and each other. Food would be dropped off every few months, along with new lepers who would join them on their tiny island prison. The occasional health official would also stop by the island.  

The island, surrounded by the cold, swift waters of the Haro Strait, was difficult to escape, although some tried,  many failed. The only person who did escape was reportedly a man who was newly married, rescued by his bride using a small boat. 

The conditions on the island were awful. No one who was sent there was ever allowed to leave. Doctors would mention on their visits that those healthy enough would be allowed to return to China, but this was a lie told to entice cooperation during inspections.

In the early 20th-century, the government took control of the island. Nearby cities like Vancouver contributed funds to its upkeep so they could continue to send lepers to D’arcy Island. Caretakers were brought in, improving the quality somewhat, but in 1924, the colony was finally shut down, and the few remaining patients were moved to other facilities on nearby Bentick Island. 

In the latter half of the 20th-century, famous American bootlegger, Roy Olmstead used D’arcy Island as a dropoff point. Another boat would come by later to pick up the shipment of liquor.

Today, the island is part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and includes off-grid camping facilities. The island is only accessible by private boat and is mostly used by sea kayakers. 

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