The Spanish Flu Hits Canada

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In these days of people worrying about the coronavirus, it is important that we look back on another virus that hit Canada over 100 years ago. It was the Spanish Flu and it tore through Canada as the country was just starting to heal from the First World War.

Today on the podcast, I look at the Spanish Flu and its impact. I will also talk to Kenton De Jong, who helped to get a monument created for the victims of the Spanish Flu in Regina a couple years ago.

First, some context relating to the worldwide spread of the disease.

The Spanish Flu appeared in January 2018 and would go on to infect 500 million people around the planet, representing 27 per cent of the world’s population. No area was safe from the disease, with it even reaching Pacific islands and the Arctic. The death toll is estimated to have been 40 to 50 million, but could have been as high as 100 million and easily dwarfed the death toll of the First World War. In the first year of the pandemic in the United States, life expectancy dropped by 12 years. What would start with headache, chills and fever, would lead to death within 24 hours. The most vulnerable, and unusual for a disease, were those aged 20 to 40, rather than children or the elderly.

With troops returning from the First World War, they brought with them an unwelcome hitchhiker. The Spanish Flu. The first wave of the flu hit in the spring of 1918, arriving in Quebec City, Montreal and Halifax, followed by another wave in the fall of that year. This second wave of the virus would result in 90 per cent of the deaths.

The first deaths from the flu are believed to have occurred in Victoriaville, Quebec due to a conference of Catholics being held there. Infected American clergy attended and the communion cups were likely tainted with the virus.

The flu spread across Canada, quickly becoming a serious disease that killed with terrible speed. It would arrive in Newfoundland on Sept. 30 aboard a steamer with three infected crew. Within two weeks, hundreds were infected. By Oct. 17, the Public Health Division of Newfoundland was appealing for nurses and volunteers. One such volunteer was Ethel Dickinson, who was working at the King George V Seamen’s Institute and contracted the flu on Oct. 24. After two days, she was dead. In Montreal, 3,128 people died out of a community of 640,000. In Toronto, 1,600 died in a city of 490,000, with the city reporting as many as 50 deaths a day. As for the aforementioned Montreal, it was retrofitting its trolly cars to deal with the dead.  

Canadians took several measures to deal with the flu. Moderate doses of heroin were used for coughing and insomnia. Epson salts were used for cleaning out the digestive track, and even Aspirin was suggested as a way to deal with the flu.

Many Canadians used laxatives to deal with the flu even though doctors said it was useless. Alcohol was also used as a pain reliever but prohibition was still in force and alcohol was difficult to find.

Companies began to latch on to the flu as a way to make money. Many touted their products as a means to stave off the flu.

Eaton’s Department Store advertised the following:

“Keeping warm spells safety first in these days of epidemic and chilly houses. Slippers that the convalescent will specially appreciate.”

Bovril, which made a beef extract drink, stated that it could guard against epidemics by building up the defensive forces of the body.

Milton’s Jaeger Pure Wool in Montreal advertised to people asking them to consult with them as they would a doctor about how to protect themselves from chill.

Insurance companies even latched on. The Dominion of Canada Guarantee and Accident Insurance Company stated the following in an advertisement.

“Our special sickness policy covers Spanish influenza. Pays a weekly indemnity and makes a weekly provision for hospital expenses.”

Interestingly, in 1918 Canada had more life insurance claims for influenza, 32.6 per cent, than for the war itself, which was at 20.95 per cent.

Quack remedies abounded during the days of the Spanish Flu. One store in Victoria, B.C. Advertised that eating more candy meant less flu. Chemists would also sell chilli paste to put on the chests of flu victims and newspapers suggested that enemas and too much red meat were the cause of the flu. Some people placed sliced onions throughout the house believing that bad vapours were causing the flu. The demand for citrus to combat the flu pushed the price of lemons to $21 per dozen in modern funds.

The tragic tales of the flu are well documented. Arthur Barton of Brandon, Manitoba joined the army at 24 and survived the war before dying of the flu on Nov. 5, 1918 just after he had returned home.

Lt. Harry Helliwell of Edmonton got the flu while recruiting dogs in northern Alberta. As he lay dying, he did not know that his wife, who nursed flu patients, had already died. He joined her soon after.

Donald William of St. Thomas, Ontario was considered to be one of the best lawyers in the country, and one of the youngest in the history of Canada. He would die from the flu.

A couple, identified as Mr. and Mrs. Quinn, would contract the flu on the same day as their newborn baby. All three would die on the same day. The only survivor of the family would be a 14-month-old toddler.

Arthur Lapointe, a Canadian soldier in the First World War, would write about the flu suddenly hitting him.

“As I reach the top my head swims with sudden nausea, everything around me whirls, I falter, then fainting, fall headlong to the ground. I feel sick and think I am going to die.”Lapointe would recover from the flu but upon returning to Canada, he found that three of his brothers and two of his sisters had died.

Doctors began to realize that quarantine was the best course to stop the spread of the disease. Dr. H.O. Hewitt in Guelph, Ontario would write in the Canadian Journal of Public Health about two doctors who took different approaches.

“I know of a town in Ontario with only two doctors and a hospital well out of town. Doctor One kept his patients at home in the bed he found them in and preached the rules and lost very few patients. Doctor Two had his patients driven in an ordinary conveyance to the hospital and used as many drugs but was unfortunate in his results.”

Doctors also found that surgical masks were ineffective. Dr. T.H. Whitelaw, the medical officer of health for Edmonton, wrote in the December 1919 Canadian Medical Association Journal the following:

“The number of cases continued to increase after the Province of Alberta ordered everyone to wear a mask outside the home and public confidence in it as a prevention soon gave place to ridicule.”

This report didn’t stop the Alberta government from making it illegal to go outside without wearing a mask. Other places also instituted odd laws to curtail the flu. Winnipeg banned spitting and roads throughout the country were patrolled to prevent the movement of the sick.

Communities throughout the country ordered stores and bars to close early and public places such as movie houses, bowling alleys, churches and auction rooms were completely closed, along with schools.

Companies, which still operated, urged their staff to practice good hygiene when dealing with the flue. A memo sent to staff at the Bell Telephone Company stated that the mouth should be covered when sneezing or coughing, that employees should avoid crowds and gargle with salt water.

These efforts didn’t help and enough operators fell ill in Montreal at the Bell offices that the public were urged to only use the phone when absolutely necessary.

Doctors had to deal with the flu constantly and fatigue was rampant as they worked long hours.

The aforementioned Dr. Whitelaw would state, “Fatigue among doctors and nurses, who necessarily had to work long hours, undoubted accounted for their tending to eventually fall victims to the disease, rather than the element of special exposure which their work entailed.”

One estimate put the patient to doctor ratio in Canada at 700 patients for every one doctor.

As the flu raged, Canada had no federal health department to deal with a national response. Only provincial and municipal departments existed. The federal health department was created in 1919 as a response to the flu. While the government would create this new federal health department, it was extremely late in response to the crisis.

When Halifax asked the federal government for help with ships carrying those infected with the flu, the government responded that outbreaks aboard vessels were the jurisdiction of the province or municipality, not the federal government. Even ships leaving Canada made the entire worldwide flu worse. The HMT Huntsend had 649 soldiers on it, of which five per cent died on the way to Europe from the flu.

The federal government actually made matters worse through their various efforts. They allowed the army to continue to knock door-to-door to conscript people for the war, thereby spreading the virus to uninflected homes. One of the worst things the government did though was send a troop train to Vancouver, which had flu-infected soldiers on it, who were going to be part of the Siberian Expeditionary Force. This was a secret mission to overthrow the Communist government in Russia. The train stopped on a regular basis to dispatch infected soldiers to local hospitals. This one train would carry the virus to countless rural communities, as well as Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

In the space of 19 days, the flu had arrived on the east coast of Canada and spread to the other side of the country.

In the first two weeks of the disease appearing in Vancouver, there were 522 cases. Within three months, 900 people had died.

Some local health boards did not respond to the flu believing it was not as bad as first believed. T.J. Minnes, chairman of the board of health in Branford, Ontario refused to implement the requests of the medical officer on the board. Four days afterwards, he claimed the flu had passed by the city. Within one week, the city had 2,500 cases of the flu and Minnes was forced to resign.

The end of the First World War was a cause of celebration, but many communities would not allow people to come together for fear of spreading the virus. In Kendra, Ontario, public gatherings were forbidden, including to celebrate the end of the war.

Many other communities did not listen though. In Saskatchewan, many came together to celebrate. In the days after the end of the war celebrations, 2,500 people would die from the flu.

The flu was bad enough that even Canada’s game of hockey was impacted. If you look on the Stanley Cup, you will see that in 1919, both the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans are listed for that year along with the words, “series not completed”

The two teams had played five games in the series to decide the winner of the Stanley Cup but in the sixth game, the flu hit both teams and only four of the Canadiens players were able to actually get out of bed. Joe Hall, the star defenceman for the Canadiens, would never get out of bed, dying on April 5 from the flu.

One group hit extremely heavy by the flu were the Indigenous people, but sadly their story is often lost amid the stories of the Spanish Flu. Over the course of Christmas 1918 alone, 20 per cent of the residents of Norway House, Manitoba, all Indigenous, were killed by the flu. In Labrador, the supply ship Harmony visited an Indigenous community and 86 of the 100 residents were dead following the visit. In the area, the population fell from 220 to 70. The ship then went to Okak, and soon after, 204 of the 263 residents were dead. One survivor was seven-year-old Martha Joshua, who survived alone in the area for five weeks before a search party found her. Her entire family had died from the flu and she survived by eating hard bread and melting snow for drinking water.

The disease infected white people as much as it did Indigenous, but the Indigenous people had much worse medical care available to them. A report published in 1919 found that Indigenous Canadians died at a rate of five times the national average. In Labrador alone, the Inuit population lost one-third of its people from the flu. It was found that early implementation of treatment for the flu was critical. If treatment was done within four days of getting the flu, the fatality rate was 19 per cent, compared to 59 per cent if it took longer than four days.

The community of Okak had been the largest Inuit settlement in Labrador before the pandemic. By January of 1919, every adult male was dead and the community was dismantled and abandoned forever.

Kitora Boas was a 20-year-old resident of Okak, and he would describe the feeling after the community was gone.

“For a long time, after there was this sense of decline as far as yearly activities were concerned among the Inuit and in all northern Labrador communities. A sense of let down was in the air for a long time.”

In Saskatchewan, the government was receiving reports during the winter of 1918 of entire homesteads sitting empty except for the frozen corpses of the people inside.

In her book, The Silent Enemy, Eileen Pettigrew described how one traveling salesman came to Paradise Hill, Saskatchewan to find the town dissected. The store was empty except for the bodies of the owner na his wife. One young man was digging graves for his entire family and a tent was filled with three dead Indigenous men.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, future prime minister of Canada, wrote in his diary about the plague.

“The number of families without anyone to help them, persons dying and others ill and unified beside them is frightful. It is a frightful plaque rampant all over the world.”

I would like to go to my interview with Kenton De Jong now, who helped to create a monument to the victims of the Spanish Flu in Regina, a city that had already dealt with a deadly tornado in 1912, the loss of many citizens during the First World War, and then the Spanish Flu. In Regina, the first mention of the flu appears in the Oct. 1, 1918 issue of the Regina Leader, and the disease would quickly spread.

The Spanish Flu was terrible, but it would lead to many modern health practices, the discovery of different blood types and more. Good would come from it, but its impact would be felt for decades to come by those who lived through it.

Information for this article comes from Wikipedia, Canada History, Parks Canada, CBC, the National Post, Canadian Geographic, Heritage Newfoundland

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