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Death or Canada

From Tile Films, the makers of Cromwell in Ireland, comes the compelling two part high definition docudrama Death or Canada. Produced by one of Ireland’s leading multi award winning film makers Stephen Rooke and Directed by IFTA-winning director Ruán Magan, this is the compelling tale of how in 1847, the British Colony of Canada gave refuge to tens of thousands of Irish famine victims, who in turn were responsible for the building of North America as we know it today.

Death or Canada is an epic, tragic tale of extreme heroism and courage. Set in 1847, the darkest year of the Irish Famine, it follows the true life story of the protestant family, John and Mary Willis who, along with their five children, abandoned their home in the west of Ireland and gambled everything on finding new lives in North America. They flee Ireland on a rotten coffin ship, worse even than those that carried African slaves to the Caribbean and together with over 100,000 other Irish in 1847, they make their way to Canada.

But terror followed in their wake and the couple lost 4 of their 5 children to typhus.  Only Mary, her husband and one son survived the Atlantic crossing.  Their journey was part of the worst humanitarian disaster of the 19th century - over 20,000 people died en route that summer while around 1 million people died during the famine years in Ireland. 

Black ‘47 was not Ireland’s tragedy alone. The fledgling colony of British North America couldn’t deal with an influx of such epic proportions.  Its eastern ports and cities were overwhelmed as they struggled to cope with the starving, Typhus-infested refugees. Their arrival threatened to decimate the fledgling British colony as in every city they arrived from Montreal to Toronto outbreaks of Typhus broke out. Many Canadians ran scared but some faced the challenge head on and their courage and sacrifice in helping the refugees helped the Irish overcome the worst calamity they had ever endured and allowed many to travel on into the United States  Toronto alone took in 40,000 people, bringing chaos, fever and death to the city’s streets. Hundreds of the dead were buried in unmarked graves.

This is the story of two countries and the moment their destinies were intertwined. 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 for ever.

Now, a century and a half later, archaeologists are unearthing this critical turning point in Canada’s history.   They are finding a story that is terrible and tragic - and yet also defined by phenomenal courage, self-sacrifice and hope.

Death or Canada is an Ireland-Canada Co-Production produced by Tile Films (Ireland) and Ballinran Productions/Summer of Sorrow Productions (Canada) for RTE, Canwest Broadcastings, History Channel UK with the participation of the Sound and Vision Broadcasting Funding Scheme, The Canadian Television Fund, the Canadian Film or Television Production Tax Credit and the Ontario Media Development Corporation Film and Television Tax Credit. &