PANDEMICS: New Brunswick’s Sheldrake Island lepers remembered

Lost Stories Project highlights the story of people banished to Miramichi River island in 1840s

By Gail Harding, CBC News Posted: Oct 29, 2016 Updated: December 2021

For five years, lepers lived in isolation on Sheldrake Island, located in the Miramichi River.

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

A little-known story of how lepers lived and were treated on an island located in the Miramichi River in New Brunswick received national recognition after being selected for the Lost Stories Project.

The Sheldrake Commemorative Committee’s story about the lepers was one of four stories across Canada to be told in a documentary. The group is the only one in Atlantic Canada to be selected.

Committee member Frances Connell says while the island is a beautiful place, it does have a tragic story.

Dark history

For five years, from 1844 to 1849, people who contracted leprosy were sent to live on the island, many of them Acadians.

“The health officials, you might say, banished all these lepers to Sheldrake Island and it was just thought that they were isolated and nobody would have any contact with them,” she said.

Connell said the 44 lepers lived in very rough buildings with no fuel or food. The conditions were too much for some who escaped on the ice in winter but were later caught and sent back.

“Some local people would bring them food and wood for fuel. They were mostly very poor and starving.”

Eventually the lepers were moved to a quarantine station known as a lazaretto in Tracadie, N.B. A bishop had decided something had to be done and asked for help from a group of nuns in Quebec.

This remarkable story can be followed in the video created for this project. Watch it here:

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