A Panoply of Short Pandemic Stories from Across Canada
Every year, Canadians contend with the unwelcome arrival of the influenza virus, which infects a fair percentage of the population. According to Health Canada, the flu hospitalizes 12,200 people annually, of whom about 3,500 will die. Fortunately, most of those afflicted return to full health within days.
That wasn’t the case, however, with the strain that emerged a century ago from 1918 to 1920, which American author Laura Spinney has described as the greatest “tidal wave of death” of the twentieth century. The Spanish flu, as it was referred to, killed over 100 million people across the globe, wreaking higher casualties than the First and Second World Wars combined according to scholars.
Within North America, the disease first surfaced on March 4, 1918, originating in the American mid-west at the Camp Funston military base in Kansas. It quickly spread across the continent, transmitted by members of the American and Canadian military traveling by ship and rail. This virulent, unprecedented strain infected one in every three Canadians, and led to the deaths of over 55,000 people. It ravaged the country, initially moving from east to west, later returning in two subsequent waves, in 1919 and 1920, leaving a somber and indelible mark within almost every community and home.
The disease indiscriminately infected people of all ages, classes, and cultures. However, those between 20 and 40 years of age proved to be the most vulnerable. The medical profession didn’t have any effective vaccines or medical treatments to prevent or cure the flu. Instead, public health officials and medical practitioners promoted preventative measures such as hand washing, avoiding social situations, and wearing a mask to protect the public from the disease and prevent it from spreading further. Many Canadians also turned to home remedies and traditional treatments to help cope with the distressing symptoms associated with the flu and potentially combat the virus.
There was neither a federal health department at this time, nor a national health policy. Consequently, most cities and communities had to fend for themselves during the pandemic. The sudden and staggering number of patients requiring care overwhelmed and crippled many of the country’s hospitals. In response, a number of communities opened temporary isolation hospitals to treat patients during the pandemic. The scope and intensity of the pandemic also led to a dire shortage of physicians and nurses in many areas. In response, around 2,000 female middle-class volunteers were recruited and trained as nurse’s aides with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) program. Their role was to assist the professional nurses during the pandemic. Doctors and nurses valiantly worked long hours to treat and care for their patients, putting themselves at great risk in the process. Unfortunately, but inevitably, some ended up catching the virus and perishing. Because of the critical and selfless role that nurses and VADs played during the war and then the influenza crisis, they garnered the admiration of the public who viewed them as heroes.
While Canadian cities were able to mobilize and set up additional hospitals and recruit health personnel during the pandemic, smaller, more isolated locales had a far tougher time responding to the health crisis. These communities lacked the internal infrastructure and resources, as well as the professional medical staff and hospitals required to properly care for the sick and dispose of their dead. The average mortality rate in Canada was around 0.6 percent. Yet communities like Okak in northern Labrador, Arthabaska and Nicolet in Quebec, Norway House in Manitoba, and Little Salmon in the Yukon all suffered staggering losses that far exceeded this figure.
The Spanish flu struck some groups, particularly First Nations communities, much harder than others. Okak, an Inuit settlement, was the hardest hit community in the country, losing 204 of its population of 263 to the disease during the pandemic, effectively eradicating the town. The remoteness of northern and isolated communities played a pivotal role. When the virus infected entire families and communities at once, there was often no one healthy enough to hunt, fish and chop wood — three of the core activities required to provide the necessities of life. The lack of food and heat, particularly in subarctic areas, exacerbated the illness, and in some cases, led to death by starvation or hypothermia.
Historian Mary Ellen Kelm notes that the death rate for Indigenous people in British Columbia was nine times higher than that for non-native residents. The plight of Indigenous peoples in B.C., she argues, was in many respects a product of their relationship with Canada. Those who suffered and lost loved ones were left with a feeling of bitterness and betrayal towards both the federal government and provincial authorities.
Two other groups subjected to greater hardships than average Canadians were immigrants and working-class people. These poor and often marginalized Canadians had higher infection rates because they often lived in over-crowded and drafty housing. Middle-class and wealthy families could afford to see a doctor, bring in paid help if required, and purchase the food and medicine needed to heal and sustain them. Most ordinary Canadians, however, could not afford these luxuries.
The closure of public spaces and businesses during the height of the pandemic also posed a greater burden for these groups, because they spent their entire meager wages on food, coal and other essentials. Many of these families also had great difficulty coping — both financially and emotionally — after the loss of a father, who was typically the breadwinner, or mother, who was the principal caregiver. Tragically, some families had no recourse but to place one or more of their children in an orphanage after the death of one or both parents. Finally, the cost of funeral expenses often exceeded the means of these individuals.
Immigrants were confronted by the added indignity of being blamed for contributing to and spreading the disease by xenophobic Canadians. As a result, they were often subjected to excessive inspections and surveillance by public health officials. In response, many immigrant communities set up their own support networks and infrastructures to help them survive during health and economic crises. This was similarly the case with working-class groups, whose members relied on unions, societies and community networks to collect the funds required to help their members pay for funeral expenses, support widows, and provide financial support for other urgent expenses. While the pandemic, explains University of Manitoba historian Esyllt Jones, “deepened and exacerbated class and ethnic conflict,” it also produced tremendous self-sufficiency within communities that gathered the support required to endure the crisis.
Although the Spanish flu pandemic wrought tremendous pain, suffering and death, it also spurred on some positive changes. These included the establishment of social welfare agencies and mutual benefit societies within working-class and immigrant communities. Another crucial change was the development of a stronger and more centralized health care system in 1919, following the establishment of the federal Department of Health. Health officials attempted to forge closer relationships between the different levels of government, greatly enhancing efficiencies and coordination. These reforms, in historian Mark Humphries’ view, represented a “shift in dominant ideologies and strategies of public health governance” that, in his estimation, “marked the beginning of the modern era in Canadian public health.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, Canadians began turning their attention to mourning and honouring those who had perished. The outbreak had occurred so suddenly and wreaked such havoc — particularly with the number of casualties involved – that many families had not had time to dig proper graves and erect formal monuments for their dead. Some cemeteries were dotted with wooden crosses to mark the bodies of influenza victims. Due to the urgency involved in disposing of the dead, others were interred in mass graves or with no marker at all.
Following the war and the pandemic, the bulk of available resources within the country were dedicated to building monuments to commemorate veterans and health professionals who took part in the war effort. A small number, however, paid homage to the doctors and nurses who displayed tremendous bravery during the pandemic, as well as victims from specific communities that were recognized as a group.
One of Canada’s most magnificent monuments honouring a Spanish flu hero stands in Cavendish Square in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This striking octagonal column topped with a Celtic cross pays tribute to Ethel Gertrude Dickenson, a local volunteer nurse who cared for influenza patients at the King George of the Fifth Institute and died on October 26, 1918. Lady and Governor Sir Charles Harris unveiled the monument in 1920. It features an inscription that recognizes Dickenson along with “those who nursed with her in the imminent shadow of death.”
By comparison to the First World War, the memory of the Spanish flu pandemic has all but disappeared from the consciousness of most Canadians. It clearly was a catastrophic event that had a significant, long-term impact on the nation. The disease indiscriminately and brutally infected and killed Canadians regardless of age, gender, background, religion and region. Yet some citizens and locales were more vulnerable than others. Consequently, it “wasn’t the same pandemic for everyone,” as Esyllt Jones observes.
The seven micro histories that are featured in this section of the site provide a selection of representative stories documenting the unique experiences of individuals, specific groups, and certain communities. They are intended to provide a glimpse into what transpired during the flu pandemic at a local level and serve as a source of information and inspiration to our student audience. We hope that Canadians will use these micro-histories as models for constructing and curating their own stories, tapping into historic materials such as newspapers, cemetery records, diaries, city council records and family lore secured from local libraries, archives, the Internet and other sources. The goal is to create a rich tapestry of historic tales that capture the diverse experiences of Canadians from across the country during the great Spanish flu pandemic.