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Death or Canada

(Fleeing the Famine)

Courtesy of Ballinan Productions and Tile Films - Death or Canada Website

1847 Irish Potato Famine An Epic Untold Chapter in Canadian History as
Death of Canada Depicts Toronto's Single Most Traumatic Event

Airing on History Television, Monday, March 16th, 2009 - from 8-10 p.m. ET/PT
(Be sure to check your local listings)

Arrival of 40,000 Destitute and Diseased Irish Refugees
Doubled Toronto's Population in Less Than Three Months

Ancestors of Henry Ford, the Eaton Family, Bing Crosby, John F. Kennedy
and Other Irish Luminaries Owe New Life to Canada's Open Arms

(TORONTO, February 5, 2009) – It's been called the most traumatic event in Toronto's history. In the summer of 1847, nearly 40,000 Irish famine refugees flooded the city, threatening to overwhelm the local population of only 20,000. A typhus epidemic followed and by the fall, more than 1,000 had died. It remains the single largest loss of life in the city's history and the bodies of those who died are buried anonymously under a school playground in Toronto's downtown east end.

The incredible story of how Toronto survived and was shaped by the events that summer is told in Death or Canada, airing on the eve of St. Patrick's Day on History Television on Monday, March 16 from 8-10 p.m. ET/PT. The two-hour docudrama begins in Ireland and finishes in Canada. It follows the journey of the Willis family, a family of six who left Ireland in the worst year of the famine and came to the new world in search of a better life. All told, more than 250,000 Irish made the journey to Canada during the famine years. Many stayed and helped build our railways and cities and produced dynasties like the Eaton family. Others traveled to the U.S., including the ancestors of John F Kennedy, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford. Those iconic names in American history may have been lost to time,if not for Canada's open door immigration policy. Today, more than 50 million North Americans claim Irish heritage.

The Willises were not so lucky. Of the six family members who began the journey, only one would survive. But set against the tragedy of that summer, were also stories of hope and inspiration. Death or Canada reveals theBishop Power story of the man who saved Toronto – Bishop Michael Power. As the famine raged in Ireland, Toronto's entrenched English and Scottish Protestant population reeled at the arrival of Irish refugees, many of them Catholic and carrying deadly typhus. It was a small group of citizens led by Bishop Power that vigorously lobbied Toronto City Council to welcome and assist the sick and dying. A hospital was opened, fever sheds established and the epidemic contained.

Some historians believe that Bishop Power's example that summer marked the beginning of Toronto's tradition of tolerance and multiculturalism. "I think the personality of the Toronto we know today and is known around the world – that personality was stamped into the DNA of the city in 1847 by those events of that summer," says Death or Canada contributor Robert Kearns.

Narrated by actor Brian Dennehy, Death or Canada has been nominated for Best Documentary Series by the Irish Film and TV Academy. The film takes its title from an Irish newspaper that called upon the suffering in Ireland to flee to Canada to survive or die on their native soil.

Irish Harp MedallionThe story is also explored through historic artifacts, recovered by archaeologist Dr. Ronald Williamson and his team, including an incredible Irish Harp medallion found during the construction of the new Toronto International Film Festival tower.

Death or Canada Producer Craig Thompson says: "In many ways, this was our Hurricane Katrina, our Great San Francisco Earthquake. It was a horrible event that nearly wiped out the city, but out of the tragedy came opportunity and renewal. The events of 1847 shaped Toronto and shaped Canada and it's fascinating to reconnect with that history."

The film has also led to the forthcoming book Death or Canada from publisher Novalis (www.novalis.ca) and written by Mark McGowan, and was shot on location at Penetanguishene's Discovery Harbour, Black Creek Pioneer Village, St. Michael's Cathedral and on board the replica ship the Jeanie Johnston, built originally in Quebec in the 1840s to carry timber to Europe, as well as many historic sites in Ireland. It also features extraordinary computer generated visual effects to bridge history and reality into an epic journey of the Willis family's struggle.

Death or Canada is a Canada-Ireland Co-Production produced by Ballinan Productions and Tile Films in association with Canwest Broadcasting, RTE Ireland and History Channel (U.K.). The docudrama is directed by Ruan Magan and produced by Craig Thompson, Stephen Rooke, Dave Farrell and Patricia Phillips.

The Story

Death or Canada is an epic tale of sacrifice and courage in the face of overwhelming adversity. It is the true story of the Willis family from the west of Ireland and their desperate journey to North America. This powerful docudrama reveals a forgotten chapter of the great Irish famine and how the fledgling city of Toronto was brought to its knees by the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 19th century.

The year was 1847. Ireland was in the grip of a devastating famine that would eventually claim as many as a Willis Family leave Irelandmillion lives and force a million more to leave their country for good.

Among those fleeing their homeland are John and Mary Willis and their five children. They gamble everything in the hope of starting new lives in the new world.

In the summer of 1847, when American ports increased the cost of entry, more than a hundred thousand desperate Irish refugees choose to head to Canada, then a colony of the British Empire. They travel in the dank and dark holds of converted cargo ships, nicknamed “coffin ships” because of the conditions on board and the high rate of mortality.

Ship’s fever or typhus is rampant and 20,000 people die en route. By the time they reach their destination, John and Mary Willis have lost four of their five children to typhus.

In 1847, Toronto, now Canada’s largest city, was a frontier town of 20,000 people. Between May and October of Refugees leave dock at Toronto, Ontario, Canadathat year, 40,000 sick and dying refugees descended upon the city including the ancestors of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

In the heart of what is now the entertainment district, home to the world famous Toronto International Film Festival, archaeologists dig for evidence – searching for signs of the temporary refugee camp where more than 1,000 people died,

In the archives, historians uncover tales of remarkable courage including the story of Bishop Michael Power, the city’s first Catholic Bishop, who sacrificed his own life serving in the fever hospital giving comfort to the sick and dying refugees.

One of North America’s leading epidemiologists opens the medical records to investigate how health authorities dealt with a typhus epidemic with little or no knowledge of the disease.

And a modern day Irish emigrant to Canada embarks on a mission to ensure this chapter of North American history is never forgotten.

This is the story of two continents and the moment their destinies became one. It is the story of how some of Toronto’s most eminent citizens sacrificed their lives to help the Irish. And it is the story of how a brave woman, Mary Willis, watched helplessly as her home, her family and her country were torn from her forever.

More than a century and a half later, the impact of the Irish famine still reverberates. The crisis transformed a city, a nation and a continent – reshaping North American society forever. Today, more than 50 million people claim Irish heritage.

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