Spanish flu of 1918-20 devastated families
South Peace News
While for most people shutting down daily life is a strange and surreal experience, it’s not the first time Alberta has had to take drastic measures to try to slow the spread of a dangerous virus.
In fact, the province has suffered through multiple different pandemics, and some of the methods used to fight outbreaks have become all too familiar: shutdowns, bans on gatherings, quarantines and masks.
The notorious Spanish flu, the most similar historical pandemic to today’s COVID-19, swept around the world from 1918-20 and killed an estimated 50 million people.
The flu wasn’t from Spain, but because Spain wasn’t participating in the First World War, reporters there weren’t told to keep quiet like in other countries where it was feared advertising how many people were falling sick and dying might give an advantage to the enemy. As reports from Spain spread about the illness, it gained the name the Spanish flu. The flu itself seemed to emerge with soldiers from the trenches, and spread with the troops, but it ultimately killed more people than the war did.
Historical records indicate at least 3,300 people died across the province, but unrecorded cases may mean that number was actually much higher.
Nor did it spare the Peace.
“My dad was five in 1918 and he survived the Spanish flu,” says Jerrold Lundgard, whose father’s name is Arnold.
“It took weeks for him to recover. He, like most others, was cared for at home with no medical support, no drugs as we know them, and only family members to tend to his needs.”
Those who got deathly ill in the Peace River area were often brought to Irene Cottage Hospital, and some locals even volunteered to help nurse sick patients.
The epidemic was so deadly that in an effort to control its spread, loitering was forbidden and police were given the power to quarantine people, much like how people today are being asked to avoid gatherings and practice social distancing under threat of potential fines.
Then as now, social distancing may have been a bit easier for Peace River and area than it was in the major cities.
“People in the area, to a certain extent, lived farther apart, so not breathing down each other’s neck or in faces, as it were, although people did gather, at one point even wearing masks,” says Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre researcher Beth Wilkins.
In fact, at the end of October 1918, the provincial government made it mandatory for everyone in Alberta to wear masks.
A photo from Armistice Day in Calgary shows many without their masks, but in Peace River people were more law abiding and followed the law at their main celebration, as proven by a photo in the Peace River Standard.
“My great uncle caught it and died. He was one of the ferry operators in Peace River until then,” Lissa Jamison says.
Jamison’s great uncle was ferry operator Ezra Krein. He was buried in Griffin Creek Cemetery along with fellow flu victim George Adams in 1919.
Duncan’ Band, now Duncan’s First Nation, was not far from the ferry landing and the flu also found a foothold there.
The band was named for Duncan Testawits, who was one of the signatories of the second signing of Treaty 8 at Peace River Crossing July 1, 1899, signing on behalf of the Cree people in Peace River Crossing District. Testawits himself got sick.
“The flu struck the native people with full force,” according to Herb Messner as recorded in the book Brick’s Hill, Berwyn and Beyond, a History of Berwyn and District.
“There were 14 Indians [who] died on the reserve in two days. There was not time for a proper burial. A trench was dug with horses and a fresno; the bodies were wrapped in their blankets and placed side by side in the trench, and the trench filled in with the fresno,” says Messner.
According to researcher Wilkins, “a fresno is a heavy metal scraper with two handles pulled by horses.”
“During the terrible Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and on into 1920, many of the Indians died,” according to the book Turning the Pages of Time, a History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts.
“Some are buried along the Grouard Trail. On an old, old map, one such cemetery is shown. Now, all the old markers are gone, and the old cemetery is part of a farmer’s wheat field. Other Indians were buried at the site of the old St. Augustine Mission…”
The St. Augustine Mission itself had an outbreak, and some number of children there died, as did Sister Vincent de la Providence.
Strangely, though, there is still much less mention in the history books about Spanish flu than you may think. In her 1999 book Flu: The story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and the search for the virus that caused it, Gina Kolata notes that people who lived or worked through the pandemic didn’t want to talk or write about it. Perhaps that’s understandable considering the trauma of the experience.
Eventually, the Spanish flu faded, but it wasn’t long before a new pandemic swept the globe. In the 1950s, it was polio that parents most feared. The disease damaged the nerves around the lungs, causing a paralysis that made it hard to breathe. Even worse, it mainly struck children.
The afflicted often had to be treated in an iron lung, which used a vacuum chamber to force the chest up and down.
Polio outbreaks happened in waves throughout Canada, and debates raged over whether to shut down swimming pools during the summer season, when the outbreaks got worse.
In fall of 1941 schools across Alberta were shut down to help stop its spread according to the Glenbow Museum. Peace River also went through outbreaks.
“I remember school starting late, kids not being allowed in movie theatres, etc. some time in the ‘50s,” says Valerie Ellis. “A neighbour’s son got it, and a girl from school ended up in an iron lung for some time, but survived.”
The worst year for polio in Canada was in 1953 with 9,000 cases and 500 deaths nationally, but in 1955 the first vaccine was developed, with a second one to follow, and over time the disease was all but eradicated in the West.
Other flu pandemics came along after, although none matched the virulence of the Spanish flu. In 1957, the Asian flu pandemic caused somewhere between one to two million deaths worldwide.
While it was considered the least deadly of the three major flu pandemics, it still had consequences for daily life.
“…they closed the college in Falher for a couple weeks in March 1957 to prevent the spread of the flu. If I remember right there must have been a couple hundred students at the college,” Francois Belzile says.
It was followed in 1968 by another flu pandemic, and the last major H1N1 pandemic hit Canada in 2009, causing 71 deaths in Alberta.
While the similarities between today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the flu pandemics of the past may seem obvious, there are some differences, too.
“For one thing, news [fake or otherwise] is traveling much faster — almost as fast as the contagions themselves,” says Wilkins.
She notes the war dominated news coverage at the time of the Spanish flu, but today information, both accurate and inaccurate, can circle the globe in moments. Rather than not enough information, we may have too much.
However then, as now, the community’s survival depends on taking the illness seriously and coming together to take action against the threat. The lessons of history say that by doing that, our communities will continue on.