Human remains found in Quebec's Gaspe region in 2011 and 2016 are those of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine who died in an 1847 shipwreck, according to Parks Canada.
The federal department confirmed the longstanding hypothesis that the bones from 21 skeletons discovered on the beach in Cap-des-Rosiers in recent years belong to victims from the Carricks of Whitehaven, an Irish ship that sank during a storm off the Gaspe coast while on its way to Quebec City over 170 years ago.
The bones of three children between the ages of seven and 12 washed up on the beach during a storm in 2011, Parks Canada said. In 2016, the department carried out an archaeological dig that found remains of 18 more people — which matched historical accounts of a mass grave on the beach.
An analysis by scientists at the Universite de Montreal found the deceased had followed a diet typical of Irish rural people, and many had suffered from diseases and malnutrition that were most likely caused by the famine.
Viveka Melki, who made a documentary about the shipwreck, said the discovery only confirms what local residents have long known to be true.
"They've known it, passed down from great-grandmothers to grandmothers," Melki said in a phone interview from Cuba, where she's working on her next film.
"They knew the story, whether I came into that story, whether Parks Canada came in and dug that up and found it, they were sure of the story."
As part of her research, Melki spoke to descendents of the shipwreck's survivors and discovered an obituary for a priest that tells the story of a mass grave dug on the beach and a shore strewn with bodies.
Some of the skeletons that were unearthed were found holding their children in their arms, she said.
Melki, who explores resilience and trauma in her films, said she was struck by how the shipwreck's descendants are still haunted by the story.
"Whether it's in our DNA in the bones, or our DNA as a person, it's something that passes down, and we have to acknowledge it, acknowledge that this story isn't finished," she said, adding that she believes the announcement will bring closure for the residents.
The Carricks was one of many ships that carried the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants who came to Canada fleeing poverty and starvation in 1847 to 1848.
According to Parks Canada, the ship carrying 180 passengers had departed from Sligo, Ireland and was headed to the Port of Quebec when it sank off the coast of Cap-des-Rosiers, killing all but 48 passengers.
Diane Lebouthillier, the area's MP, said the shipwreck is a stark symbol of the sacrifices many Irish immigrants made in their perilous journey to Canada.
"The tragic events of the Carricks shipwreck are a startling reminder of just how difficult the journey was for the travellers and that not everybody was lucky enough to reach their new home," she said.
Parks Canada said the remains will be buried near the Irish Memorial on Cap-des-Rosiers Beach at a ceremony to be held in the summer, in accordance with the community's wishes.
- Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press