"> Log Cabin Chronicles John Mahoney's Anthrax and germ warfare column

John Mahoney's Free-fire Zone
John Mahoney
John Mahoney
is editor of the Log Cabin Chronicles.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 10.11.01
Fool's Hollow, Quebec


Nervous about anthrax? Actually, it's not a new story in North America.

Yes, people are jittery about foreign terrorists unleashing deadly germs like anthrax into the air they breathe, the water they drink.

What kind of monsters, they ask, would commit such a heinous act?

But Canada, like the U.S. and the U.K., is no stranger to the production of anthrax for use in germ warfare.

And it's not a new story -- it goes back more than sixty years.

In 1937, Canada and the United States created a super-secret germ warfare research facility on Grosse Ile in the St. Lawrence River, thirty miles from Quebec City. It was in operation for two decades, until the mid-1950s.

Its deadly products: anthrax and tuleremia -- rabbit fever.

And keep in mind that this isolated germ warfare island -- it's seven miles from shore on either side and had served as an immigrant quarantine station since 1832 -- was not the brainchild of madmen.

The most well-known proponent of biological warfare in Canada was the illustrious Sir Frederick Banting, co-discover of insulin and a Nobel prizewinner. He was killed in 1941 in Newfoundland, in an airplane crash. There were those who believed it was sabotage.

In 1942, Canada proposed to Great Britain that it produce germ-bombs for the Allied war effort. It was reckoned that Grosse Ile could churn out 1500 thirty-pound bombs every week.

There is no record that I know of that the bombs were either made or dropped on the Axis enemies.

But I have heard stories -- I cannot vouch if they are true -- that in the late evenings, when Sir Frederick had had a few drams, that he would chortle at the image of countless thousands of Germans writhing in the final agonies of anthrax delivered by Allied germ-bombs.

Some years ago, I stayed on Grosse Ile as the guest of the site director, before it was opened to the public as a Parks Canada heritage site. While there I was told another fascinating tale -- again, I cannot say it is true. But this is what I was told:

During Word War II, Canadian forces are alleged to have captured a German submarine trying to infiltrate the St. Lawrence River and wreak havoc on Allied shipping.

The German crew was taken to Grosse Ile and, according to the tale I was told, died from germ warfare experiments.

All but one died on Grosse Ile, that is.

One Nazi submariner was said to have escaped and swam the seven treacherous miles across to Montmagny. When he stumbled ashore he was immediately executed.

Again, I cannot vouch for the veracity of this account and I caution you to treat it as I do -- just an interesting story.

Because of its infrastructure of ultra-safe germ containment facilities, and its secure location in the middle of a wide river, Grosse Ile became a Agriculture Canada quarantine station for exotic cattle imported from Europe. It remained off limits to the public, as it had been for more than 150 years.

Since its first use as a quarantine station for immigrants in 1832, a substantial support system had developed on the island. A village, really, with three hotels, two churches, a school, a bakery, homes for the support staff.

More than 5000 Irish who died escaping the Great Famine of 1847 -- some put the figure at 20,000 -- are buried on Grosse Ile. One of the Fever Sheds still stands.

The Government of Canada now promotes Grosse Ile as a heritage site, a place of hope in a new land. It is popular with tourists in season, and many whose ancestors survived the horrors of the early years make pilgrimages to the island.

I've trudged in the rain behind a bagpiper to the mass burying ground of the Irish, and it was eerie and sad and beautiful at the same time.

But I knew about the anthrax and the tuleremia and the germ warfare plans, and that, along with the knowledge of those who suffered and died in the surf and on the rocky shores and in the fever sheds, gave me little reason to celebrate it as a place of hope and promise.