Canada’s Epidemic History

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Right now, Canada and the rest of the world is going through Covid-19 and I thought it would be interesting to look at the epidemics from the past in Canada.

In this, I am not going to focus on the Spanish Flu, as I did an entire episode on that back in February, which covers everything extensively.

Instead, this episode will go through the years of epidemics, from the small to the large, through to the dawn of the 21s century in Canada.

Any talk of epidemics has to begin with the arrival of Europeans to what would be Canada. Prior to their arrival, the Indigenous people did not have diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever and smallpox. Once those diseases arrived, they decimated the Indigenous populations.

The first documented outbreak of a disease in what would be Canada came through Jacques Cartier, who had arrived at the community of Stadacona, an Iroquois village located where Quebec City is today. When he first came to the village while travelling up the St. Lawrence River, he found it was heavily populated and prosperous. Upon his return, not long after, in the winter of 1535, he found that the people there were dying of a disease that he and his men were immune to. It would be later historians who saw that disease for what it was, smallpox.

Seven decades later, Samuel de Champlain would come through the area and Stadacona was nothing more than a ghost town.

In 1616, smallpox arrived in the first fur trading post of New France called, and I apologize if I pronounce this incorrectly, Tadoussac. Since this was a fur trading post, the smallpox disease then spread to several Indigenous groups in the area.

Between 1634 and 1640, Jesuit priests spread the smallpox disease, without realizing it, to Indigenous people along Lake Simcoe and south of Georgian Bay. This would cause the Huron population to fall by 60 per cent by 1640.

New France would be hit with a smallpox epidemic in 1702-03, followed by another one in 1713-15, and a third one in 1733, killing 140 people in Louisbourg, in what would one day be Nova Scotia.

Once Europeans began to realize that smallpox could be used as a weapon, the topic of intentionally infecting Indigenous would begin to pop up. In 1763, Chief Pontiac was beginning his resistance movement against the British. Sir Jeffery Amherst, who led the British Army, suggested to Colonel Henry Bouquet that smallpox could be introduced to the Indigenous who were fighting against the British. In a letter to the colonel, he would write, “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exportable race.”

Diseases such as smallpox would devastate the Indigenous people, and by 1900, their population had declined by an estimated 90 per cent, although that decline was not totally from the spread of disease.

Smallpox wouldn’t go away for some time in Canada, and it would circle back a few times to hit residents of the country several times.

As fur traders began to move into the Canadian prairies, they would take the disease with them. Between 1779 and 1783, smallpox spread to the Indigenous people of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, with as many as 75 per cent of the Plains Indigenous population falling to the disease, or due to the result of the disease, like starvation.

In a letter from William Walker of Hudson House along the North Saskatchewan, dated Dec. 4, 1781, he would state, “the small pox is raging all around us with great violence, sparing very few that take it. We have received news of above nine tents of Indians within here, all dead, the tents left standing and their bodies left inside, unburied. The Indians lying dead about the barren ground like rotten sheep, the tents left standing and the wild beast devouring them.”

In the Cumberland House journals of 1781 and 1782, the terrible impact to the disease is seen in entries, of which I will read some.

“Jan 15 Tuesday. Late in the evening a distressed woman and her child came here, these are all that is alive out of one tent and has not yet been ailing. The news she brings is still more and more alarming. The small pox raging amongst them with its greatest fury and carrying all before it, they chiefly die within the third or fourth night and those that survive after that time are left to be devoured by wild beasts.

Jan 25 Friday. Two men digging grave and burying a woman that died last night. There is still nine more ailing, four of which I have in the house and they have due attendants night and day and yet there is little hope of their recovery.

Jan 31 Thursday. Sent four men to bury four of the Indians. Late in the evening three young Indians arrived, one of which was taken bad last night. Out of a number that has died, there is only one woman that has recovered.”

In order to stop the spread of the disease, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to order its employees to start giving inoculations and teaching the technique to others through the prairies.

By 1800, smallpox inoculations were becoming more common. This would involve injecting smallpox pus under the patient’s skin, but these early vaccinations didn’t stop the disease from coming back occasionally.

In 1862-63, British Columbia would suffer a smallpox epidemic that claimed the lives of upwards of 3,000 European settlers. This disease was caused by a single infected person on a steamship from San Francisco. It is estimated as many as 14,000 Indigenous, half the population of the Vancouver Island, would die from the disease that year. 

In 1870, a Métis community in central Alberta would be hit with the disease, losing 37 per cent of its population that year.

In 1884, smallpox would spread to a town in eastern Ontario. Ontario at the time had amended its Public Health Act, which would get its first chance at combating a disease at this point and towns could appoint their own health officers. When the health officer in the town fell ill, the people of nearby towns called in the Provincial Board of Health. Peter Bryce, who was the Secretary of the Provincial Board, then ordered schools and churches closed, all public gatherings were stopped and stagecoach service into the community was suspended. Constables would patrol the roads to ensure no one was moving who would carry the disease. Medical students were brought in by Bryce to conduct hours-to-house vaccinations against smallpox and he even had pamphlets issued to counter the claims of an anti-vaccination doctor located in the community. Due to these efforts, the town saw 202 cases, 45 deaths, but the outbreak did not pass outside the community.

In 1885, Montreal would be hit hard by a smallpox epidemic. In order to deal with the disease, municipal authorities decided to make vaccination a requirement but at the time medical opinion was heavily divided on the effectiveness of vaccinations. The population, for its part, generally refused to get vaccinated and many felt that it was just a way to spread the disease further. Things would reach a critical point when on Sept. 18, 1885, residents rioted and tore down pro-vaccination posters and destroyed the home of the official medical vaccinator, while also attacking pharmacies and city hall. This outburst did not stop the spread of the disease of course, and by the end of the smallpox epidemic, 3,164 people in Montreal had died, with three quarters of them being children. With this number, Montrealers began to accept that vaccinations were a good idea, aided by the prompting of authorities and clergy within the city. This would be the last major epidemic of smallpox in a North American city. Ontario, seeing its success the previous year, would actually send Bryce in to Montreal to deploy medical inspectors to ensure that anyone coming to Ontario was free of smallpox infection. While Montreal would see that terrible epidemic, and Quebec would see 5,964 deaths, Ontario only had 30 deaths.

This is not to say that smallpox was gone forever, although it would be after 1980 when it was eradicated from the world. In 1924, Windsor would see 67 people get the disease and 32 would die.

Typhus would arrive in Canada in 1659 for the first time, with several small outbreaks over the next century. The worst outbreak of all was in 1746 when France sent several warships to Canada to take Port-Royal in the Acadian region. A total of 3,150 soldiers were on board the ships, but on the voyage across the ocean, 1,270 died, followed by a further 1,130 in the Bedford Basin. The troops were supposed to meet with an army coming from Quebec, but this obviously did not happen. What did happen is that the Mi’kmaq people of the region were hit with the disease and 33 per cent of them died.

Almost exactly 200 years later, Irish immigrants were coming across the Atlantic to settle in Canada, but along the way through the year, 9,293 would die in what has been called The Year Of Typhus. Those coming from Ireland were required to stay in quarantine stations along the St. Lawrence River, as well as in hospitals in Montreal, Quebec City, Kingston and Toronto. In those stations, 10,037 would die from the disease alone, and over 20,000 would die throughout the epidemic.

The Typhus Epidemic of that year was very significant, so I’m going to dive into that a bit more.

On May 17, 1847, the Syria arrived at the quarantine station in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence with 430 fever cases. Eight more ships arrived a few days later and a Dr. Douglas would say, “not a bed to lay the invalids on. I never contemplated the possibility that every vessel arriving with fever as they do now.” By a week later, 17 more vessels appeared and 695 people were already in the hospital on the island. Two days later, 30 vessels were waiting with 10,000 immigrants to be processed. By the end of May, 40 ships stretched for three kilometres in a line, waiting to be processed and every ship had cases of typhus on it. On some ships, like the Agnes, due to the rule that healthy people had to stay on the ships they were on, with the sick passengers, 150 of the 427 passengers survived. So many people were at the hospital, overwhelming its space that by the end of July, the quarantine regulations were abandoned and people only had to have their tongues examined if they looked feverish. This would allow those with a latent fever to pass as healthy people and leave the quarantine.It is not known how many died on the ships, crossing the ocean and waiting in quarantine but one estimate says roughly 5,200 people.

In Montreal, upwards of 5,000 people died of typhus in fever sheds in 1847 and 1848. These sheds were 150 feet long by 40 to 50 feet wide, with thousands of sick immigrants inside. Residents of Montreal were unhappy to have the sheds in their municipal limits and they threatened to destroy the sheds and throw them in the river. Mayor John Easton Mills would calm the rioters and he provided care himself, giving patients water and changing bedding. He would die only a few months later, having served less than one year in office. When workers on the Victoria Bridge were constructing the bridge, they found the remains of men of Irish descent in a mass grave from this typhus epidemic. On Dec. 1, 1859, they would put a black rock in place, still there to this day, that honoured those victims.

In Toronto, smaller fever sheds that were 22 metres long and 7.5 metres wide were built, 12 in all, the accommodate the typhus patients. In the summer alone, 863 Irish immigrants, as well as the first Bishop of Toronto, Michael Power, who provided care and help to the immigrants.

On Partridge Island, New Brunswick, near the harbour of Saint John, there was a quarantine station that had been used since the 1780s for new immigrants. In 1847, with such a large influx of immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine, the epidemic spread quickly and filled the hospital. By the end of the outbreak, 2,115 had died in New Brunswick, half of which were on the island or in Saint John.

In Ottawa, called Bytown at the time, 3,000 Irish immigrants arrived in 1847 and the fever would appear in June of that year. A total of 200 people would die from the outbreak.

In Kingston, immigrant sheds were erected to deal with the infected and 1,400 would die.

In a report to the British Parliament it was stated, “6,100 perished on the voyage, 4,100 on their arrival, 5,200 in the hospitals and 1,900 in the towns to which they repaired. The total mortality was 17 per cent of the number emigrating.”

Typhoid would appear well into the 20th century in Canada. In 1920, a small outbreak occurred in Toronto that resulted in 20 deaths. In 1923, Cochrane, Ontario would be hit with a typhoid due to contaminated sewage getting into the water supply. This would result in 800 cases and 50 deaths in the community of 3,400. In 1927, Montreal would have one of its worst typhoid epidemics in a century when 5,000 people were stricken by contaminated milk, resulting in 533 deaths.

Cholera was another serious disease that would pop up again and again in the country. In 1831, the Canadian government put regulations in place that would not allow Canadian residents from visiting ships in port due to fears over cholera coming from Europe and infecting residents at port. In 1832, a sanitation committee was set up and quarantine laws were increased in several port communities. The seriousness of the situation was shown in the fact that one ship was allowed to leave the quarantine station and would trigger the 1832 Cholera Epidemic, which killed 20,000 people in Upper and Lower Canada. During this epidemic, 10 per cent of the population of Quebec City and 15 per cent of the population of Montreal would die. Two years later in 1834, cholera would return to places like Toronto. In 1847, it popped up again as 38,000 Irish famine refugees arrived in Toronto, which amounted to twice the population of the city at that point.

Yellow Fever, something that is incredibly rare in our climate, would arrive in Canada in 1710, which at the time was called Siamese Disease. It arrived in Quebec City from the West Indies thanks to mosquitos on a ship that found the heat and humidity perfect for reproduction. They would spread the disease to the sailors, who were taken to Quebec City where they died. The disease would also take the life of six nurses and 12 priests. It is not known how many died of the disease through the summer. By the winter, both the insect and disease would vanish and only a few small outbreaks at ports would occur over the next few centuries in Canada.

In 1773, a disease appeared in Baie Saint Paul and spread through the churches of the area, before finally reaching Montreal. Symptoms included cheek lining ulcers, pain in the limbs and the destruction of the gums, nose and swelling of he head. It is not known for sure where the disease came from, or what it was but the modern feeling is that it was a form of syphilis.

By far the worst epidemic to hit Canada was the Spanish Flu, which killed 50,000 people between 1918 and 1919. I did a long episode on that back in February, and I would encourage you to check it out.

Canada’s efforts to combat diseases date back long before its founding. In 1721, a quarantine act was created for fears of the Black Plague, currently spreading in Europe, coming to New France, which it never did thankfully. In 1795, the Quarantine Act of Lower Canada would be created and it would serve as a template for other colonial governments in British North America. In 1816, a physician was appointed as the Health Officer of Lower Canada, a new post, to deal with the illnesses of the incoming immigrants to Canada. In 1823, a stronger quarantine bill was passed and it created a Board of Health that had five licensed physicians and surgeons on it. In 1849, the government of the Province of Canada created the Central Board of Health, which would stay around until a cholera epidemic disappeared, at which point the board was dissolved. When cholera hit again in 1859, the board would be created once again. In 1867 with the British North America Act, sections 91 and 92 give the responsibility of creating quarantine and marine hospitals to the federal government, while the provinces were responsible for the establishment, maintenance and management of hospitals. The level of public health initiatives would be haphazard for the rest of the 19th century, and would vary from province to province and city to city. By 1919, the country had a federal authority for health, and with more public health activities and better sanitation and health care, diseases became less serious

Not everything has been a pandemic that has hit Canadians hard. In 1945, a whooping cough epidemic spread through the country and killed 25 per cent of all the babies under one year old, while those aged one to two died at a rate of 10 per cent. In the early 1950s, a polio epidemic swept through Canada, paralyzingly 11,000 people.

Vaccinations began to help as well. While 11,000 people would be paralyzed by polio in the early 1950s, that number would drop to zero by the mid-1990s with the disease being mostly eliminated. At one point, measles would result in 300,000 to 400,000 cases a year by the 1960s, but that number had dropped to 2,362 by the mid 1990s.

Other initiatives would help Canadians deal with the terrible viruses that had plagued them in the past. The first food guide was released in 1942 to reduce nutritional deficiencies, and a family allowance was started in 1944 to help raise healthier children. In 1947, the first hospital insurance program was started in Saskatchewan and by the 1960s we had universal health care.

While we still deal with terrible diseases, as we see with Covid-19, progress has been made to lower the frequency of epidemics and their death toll on Canadians.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Canada’s Public Health History, National Trust Canada, This is Public Health: A Canadian History, The First Smallpox Epidemic On The Canadian Plains,

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