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
Airing on History Television, Monday, March 16th, 2009 - from 8-10 p.m. ET/PT
Arrival of 40,000 Destitute and Diseased Irish Refugees
(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 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 the 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.
The 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.
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.
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