Regina’s Darkest Days

The Spanish Influenza

Kenton de Jong

The Spanish influenza may not have arrived in Regina until October 1918, but the seeds of the epidemic were planted much earlier. The moment England went to war, military camps began popping up across Canada. Politicians and medical professionals knew that these camps were cesspools of disease and that it would be catastrophic for them to be close to civilian populations. The larger the camp, and the closer it was to the civilian population, the more likely an outbreak would happen.

Regina’s camp – Camp Exhibition – sat between two of the city’s largest residential neighbourhoods. On October 2, 1918, an agreement was made between city council and the military authorities to increase the camp from 1,000 soldiers to 2,500 during the winter months. Four days after these plans were made, on October 6, a Scottish immigrant named Robert Callander would die in hospital, making him the city’s first Spanish influenza fatality. That same day, two soldiers and four civilian cases were reported, one of which was a family of five.

Regina was experienced in dealing with pandemics, but the small city had grown tenfold in the past two decades. This unprecedented growth rendered many of the quarantine lessons of the past ineffective. To find a modern solution, city council created the Spanish Influenza Relief Committee. Its members included City Medical Health Officer Dr. Malcolm Bow, local practitioners Dr. John Rose and Dr. Connell, Mayor Henry Black, and several city aldermen, all under the guidance of Dr. Maurice Seymour, the provincial health commissioner. This committee’s purpose was to educate the public, prevent outbreaks, isolate patients, quarantine outbreaks, mark infected homes, and disinfect hospitals.

Twenty-four hours after the death of Callander, there were 37 cases of the Spanish flu in the city.

As the cases increased, The Morning Leader began reporting on how other cities across the country were tackling the disease. While Ottawa and Vancouver were not yet shutting down schools, churches, or amusements, Saint John, New Brunswick, and Winnipeg had already gone into complete lockdown. The subcommittee then reached out to Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa. None of these municipalities were closing buildings or banning public assemblies yet, but two days later, on October 16, they all did.

The Morning Leader

Less than 10 days after Callander’s death, 12 people had died from the Spanish flu and 210 were infected. The next day saw many cities across Saskatchewan closing schools, churches, and stores, as well as banning all public assemblies – including wartime rallies. By October 17, Regina had done the same. As of October 22, the ranks of the deceased had grown to 42; within days, 65 had died. It is estimated that during this time, there were more than 500 cases in the city.

With Regina’s two hospitals full, new cases were turned away. After one man collapsed and died in Victoria Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral opened its doors to be a makeshift hospital. Almost overnight, that space was filled too. Fearful that their children would get sick, many parents kept them home from school. With attendance dropping and the schools closing, the Spanish Influenza Relief Committee moved to transform schools into wards and teachers into nurses. Victoria School became Victoria Hospital, with Strathcona School and St. Mary’s School following suit. With new space allocated for patients and an increased nursing staff, the infrastructure was in place to combat the disease.

However, soon after these new hospitals opened, nurses and doctors began falling ill. The committee decided to handle the growing number of cases by ordering people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. The committee then issued a request for the public to lend their vehicles to doctors and nursing staff. This would, in theory, allow doctors to see more patients.

On October 28, only three weeks after Regina’s first death, a reporter from The Morning Leader sat down with a “well known local practitioner” to determine the status of the city. The practitioner claimed to be too busy to report each new case to city hall as he had more than 700 patients to visit. He estimated there were close to 5,000 cases in Regina by that time. “If the devil and all his angels were behind me,” he admitted, “I could never reach all these people tonight.”

The doctor said the city’s medical staff was “handicapped” due to a shortage of experienced doctors and nurses, as well as their inability to enforce quarantine orders. Doctors, he said, were too spread out and did more driving than curing. When this information was passed on to the city, municipal officials responded by bringing on chaperones to drive doctors, similar to what Moose Jaw had done days earlier.

A bird’s eye view of Regina in 1919.

Following the scathing report in The Morning Leader, the subcommittee decided to conduct a census to get an idea of how the city was faring. With schools and amusements shut down, the Spanish Influenza Relief Committee requested the assistance of the Boy Scouts to lead the census, with assistance from an army of civilian volunteers. They expected 350 volunteers to lead the Scouts, but instead only 40 men opted to help. Unperturbed, the relief committee divided the city into eight sections and systematically sent the Scouts and volunteers door-to-door to report on the health of families at each address. The census two took days. Although the situation was poor, it was not as dire as expected. The Scouts and volunteers determined there were 1,899 people home sick with the flu.

Unfortunately, the census verified the fear shared by many medical professionals. With lack of medical staff, time, and resources, many of the families surveyed were not improving, even after receiving medical help. Some families believed the flu spread through “bad air” and had painted or nailed their windows shut. Others were unsure how to administer medication and instead opted to not take any. Others relied on “quackery” solutions, such as Christian Science healing methods. The Morning Leader reported that one of the volunteers found a “foreign born woman” lying in bed, waiting a week to see a doctor. The volunteer claimed the cyanosis – a typical symptom of the Spanish influenza – was so extreme that it had left the woman’s tongue and throat a deep shade of black. 

An urban-planning map from the early 1900s illustrating the proposed growth of the city. The plan was never realized, perhaps a casualty of the devastation of the Spanish flu pandemic on the city.

The same day that the findings of the census were released, an order of 50 vaccines arrived in the city. The members of the Spanish Influenza Relief Committee responded by administering the first batch of vaccines to themselves instead of distributing them to the front-line doctors, nurses, or Boy Scouts who were in the process of handing out 3,000 education pamphlets to the sick and dying population.

On October 30, the manager of the Regina Burial Company succumbed to the flu, leaving Speers Funeral Home the sole funeral home to deal with the disaster. As the days passed, the number of dead increased faster than predicted, and at one point the small funeral home had 57 bodies piled up, waiting to be buried. To prevent the accumulation of corpses, Dr. Seymour ordered all deceased to be buried within 24 hours of death, and city officials ordered funerals to be shortened from 45 minutes to 15 minutes. City officials transferred workers from the Street Cleaning, Parks, and Works departments to dig graves. When the city requested that these workers dig graves on Sundays, the workers countered with a request for increased wages. It was determined the city would have the “best terms possible with these men who are to be kept in any event.” Not only were they given a 50-cent-per-hour raise; they were also allowed to take tea breaks between internments.

Following the findings of the city-wide census, it was discovered that a neighbourhood in eastern Regina named Germantown had been forgotten by canvassers. The reason for this oversight was never given, but due to the anti-German sentiment in the city at the time, it may have been intentional. Germantown was full of Eastern European immigrants, including Germans, Jews, Austrians, Ukrainians, and Serbians. The neighbourhood was also very religious, being home to the first Serbian Orthodox Church in Canada, the oldest Romanian Orthodox Church in North America, and the city’s sole synagogue.

Although the citizens of Germantown were very proud, they were also very poor. Many of the houses they lived in were nothing more than shacks. The infrastructure throughout this neighbourhood was so bad that many of these buildings did not have electricity or plumbing, nearly a decade after it had been delivered to the rest of the city. Additionally, this neighbourhood had been a flashpoint of conflicts during the war, including an arson attack against Der Courier, a sympathetic pro-Canada German newspaper. 

To conduct a survey of this neighbourhood, the committee asked local authorities to do door-to-door reporting. However, the sudden appearance of figures of authority in Germantown frightened the citizens, as many had seen loved ones sent to “enemy alien” camps across the country. The sight of the police knocking on doors, passing out government pamphlets, and interviewing families triggered a panic. The police recognized the effect they were having by being in the community and struggled to explain their presence. Instead of communicating with parents, the police opted to begin talking to the children, who in turn translated the questions and interviewed adult family members. 

To the surprise of law enforcement, Germantown had escaped the full brunt of the outbreak. Although no explanation was provided by the reports, one possibility could have been the high levels of garlic in their Slavic diet. According to Earl Drake’s Regina: The Queen City (1955), “nearly everyone ate garlic and onions as a preventative.” However, with little scientific evidence supporting the claim that garlic or onions works as a preventative, a positive correlation cannot be made. 

While the situation within the city seemed to be improving, the total number of reported deaths abruptly jumped from 179 on November 4 to 277 by November 6. Of those, 193 were Regina citizens and the rest were from out of town. This spike of deaths could be attributed to the exposure of rural families flocking to urban centres. Communities across Saskatchewan had seen thousands of families arriving, searching for medical help and safety in case of disease. The fear of falling ill and dying in the countryside was enough for many families to pack up their lives and move to the largest urban centre. However, many towns had gone into complete quarantine, cutting out the outside world. In Tisdale, Saskatchewan, the village council passed a resolution asking all country residents to leave town as soon as possible after transacting their business. This led to an exodus of farming families flowing into the larger cities like Regina.

By November 9, 222 Regina residents had fallen victim to the disease. Two days after that, the First World War ended and the city rejoiced. Many believed the end of the war would bring the end of the flu.

They were correct. Slowly, the situation improved. On November 14, theatres asked to be allowed to reopen. Churches followed suit. City health officials declined both sets of requests, even though Moose Jaw and Saskatoon had allowed churches and theatres to reopen. Emergency hospitals across the city were emptying out and closing and slowly transforming back into schools. Teachers were given a week off to rest before resuming classes.

The following days saw continued improvements in the city. Frustrated with the city’s decision and watching the epidemic recede, First Baptist Church officials sent a letter to the city to address their concerns, claiming a nearby confectionary store had a “seething crowd of hundreds of people” during one of their recent sales. The church asked if this was wise or consistent with the current ban on gatherings. As the officials wrote, the church should not fall under the ban because “a well-lighted, well-aired building occupied for a short time once or twice a week is not the same source of danger as an ill-lighted, ill-ventilated building, occupied continuously for several hours daily by constantly changing audience.”

This time, the city agreed.  On Sunday, November 23, all the churches across the city were reopened. The next day theatres opened too, as did libraries that had closed voluntarily earlier in the outbreak. As The Morning Leader reported, “Regina resumed normal life” at 6 p.m. on November 25. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish Influenza Relief Committee disbanded.

Although normal daily life resumed at the end of November, the Spanish flu did not vanish. While the death count on November 26 was 261 people, provincial medical records show the final number would eventually reach 330. There are few records available as to when these extra deaths occurred, but according to the City of Regina’s burial database, a significant spike of interments occurred in January and March of 1919. The causes of these deaths, however, are unknown.

On December 14, 2017, a monument was erected in the Regina Cemetery in honour of the victims of the Spanish influenza. The monument was made possible by work, donations, and research done by the City of Regina, Speers Funeral and Cremation Services, Frontier Cemetery Monuments, the Regina Catholic School Board, the Saskatchewan Military Museum, Rock of Ages Canada, Jay Carnall, and myself.  Many of the victims’ graves are nothing but empty plots, with an especially large empty area at the northern edge of the cemetery. City records lack details about who is buried in this area, and Speers lost its 1918 burial records in a fire. While this area of the cemetery is full of bodies, the exact number buried, and those who died from the Spanish influenza, are unknown.