This week’s topic was suggested by Flatlander reader Jessica who was curious about how the Spanish flu impacted the Canadian Prairies.
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The Spanish flu spread globally between 1918 and 1920 as the First World War ended and is considered one of the deadliest pandemics in history.
Taking the young. The greatest death toll was amongst people aged 20 to 40.
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Like COVID-19, the Spanish Flu symptoms included fever, dry cough, and tiredness.
The flu came to Saskatchewan in two waves. The first wave, during the spring of 1918, was mild. That’s because injured soldiers with the disease were largely confined to hospitals and their homes, so infections in the province were low.
Soldiers’ disease. Soldiers returning from Europe were likely infected as they passed through Camp Exhibition, a military camp near Regina.
Gatherings were forbidden, and people stayed home to avoid getting the flu. Some even painted or nailed windows shut, believing the illness could be borne through the air.
No one was hoarding toilet paper. Although people were advised to stay home to protect themselves from the flu, hoarding groceries was illegal because the country was rationing food because of the First World War. Those hoarding could face imprisonment and fines up to $1,000. Saskatchewan police actively investigated food hoarding.
Killing germs. Local pharmacists took out ads in the Regina Leader (now the Leader-Post) advertising disinfects and antiseptics.
Masks were a thing. In October 2018, Dr. M.M. Seymour, Saskatchewan’s provincial health commissioner, recommended that both flu patients, as well as the doctors and nurses treating them, wear masks.
Other front-line workers. After a local barber from Rouleau, SK died of the flu, barbers began wearing masks as well to protect themselves.
Masks catch on. Local Saskatchewan citizens also started wearing masks as a precaution, some soaking them in Lysol. Chiffon veils were a recommended option for women to protect themselves from the flu. Regina city council eventually recommended people wear gauze masks when in closed quarters with others.
People complained about the masks being uncomfortable, according to diaries and stories from this era.
Prohibition’s impact on the flu. In 1918, the Saskatchewan government withdrew part of the Temperance Act. Previously, alcohol was only legally obtainable at a pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription. But the change to legislation meant pharmacists could sell up to eight ounces of liquor to a person living within five miles of a store without a doctor’s prescription.
Booze was a medicine. E.A. Jolly, owner of Jolly’s Drug Stores in Regina (which is still open today), recommended brandy as a drink that would prevent and cure the flu. Another pharmacist said whisky would help break up a cold and keep the patient warm but didn’t guarantee that it was a cure.
No privacy rules. Back then, the media printed the names of those who died of the flu and where they died, like at the Regina General or the Grey Nuns.
Rural Saskatchewan was hit hardest by the flu, except those who lived more solitary lives on homesteads. Communities with Spanish flu outbreaks included Prelate, Leader, Expanse, Avonlea, Sedley, Wolseley, Assiniboia, Willow Bunch, Bethune, and Brownlee.
First Nations communities were quarantined after outbreaks by the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. Although this helped limit the spread of the virus, it did little to help those living on the reserve, whose health was already compromised by inadequate medical care and poor living conditions.
According to the parliamentary sessional papers for the Dominion of Canada for 1920: “There was a very heavy mortality among the Indians of Saskatchewan as a result of the epidemic of influenza, which was prevalent on practically all the reserves in the province. Very few of the Indians escaped this malady and many of them have been left in a very delicate state of health as a result thereof.”
A city lockdown. In mid-October, after Regina counted its first 12 deaths, the city’s medical health officer Dr. M.R. Bow ordered theatres, moving picture theatres, poolrooms, billiard rooms, bowling alleys and dance halls close their doors to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu. All public assemblies and public meetings, including churches and Sunday schools were also closed. Sports were also cancelled. The same measures were taken in Saskatoon.
Schools were closed, and some were used as field hospitals. And non-criminal court proceedings were adjourned. Restaurants remained open, however.
Regina College was quarantined, as was the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, except for Emmanuel College, which became an emergency treatment centre, run by female volunteers. But Saskatoon hospitals refused to admit people from out-of-town with flu symptoms.
Throwing caution to the wind. When the war ended in November 11, 1918, despite the ongoing pandemic, people in Saskatchewan got together to celebrate, causing the flu to spread even further. Because of this, 2,500 people, half of those killed by the flu in Saskatchewan, died that month.
In the end, 5,018 Saskatchewan residents died of the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920.
Meanwhile in Manitoba, the province missed the first wave of the Spanish flu but would be hit hard during the second wave when there were several thousand infections within a few weeks.
Patient zeros. It’s believed that the flu was brought to Winnipeg by two soldiers Pte. E. Murray and Pte. W. Barney who boarded a train in Quebec that was headed west. The two men, along with 21 others were dropped off in Winnipeg, brining with them the Spanish flu.
As the disease spread, schools were closed and social-distancing measures were put in place, but this didn’t stop the Spanish flu from infecting 12,950 Winnipeggers by Jan. 1, 1919.
People stayed home to try to rein in the spread, and like in Saskatchewan, churches, schools, movie theatres, billiard halls, dance halls, and public bathhouses were shuttered. The University of Manitoba suspended classes at both their Broadway and Fort Garry campuses.
Gatherings were banned and limits were put on how many people could be on streetcars and in grocery stores.
Brave volunteers. More than 650 women in Winnipeg volunteered to care for the sick, but hospital visiting hours were abolished and personal care homes were closed to all visitors.
A second spike would hit Winnipeg in the spring of 1919, but it was a much smaller wave then the city’s first one. The number of cases eventually dwindled over the summer of 1919. In total, the Spanish flu killed 1,200 people in the provincial capital.
Paranormal activity. The Spanish flu would inspire Winnipegger Thomas Glendennng Hamilton and his wife Lillian to investigate the possibility of “spiritual communication” with the deceased after they lost their three-year-old son due to the disease.
The work. Hamilton was a Manitoba school board trustee, member of legislature and a physician who, following the family tragedy, began paranormal investigation through séances, mediums, and trance states.
Fame would come to the Hamiltons, who were internationally recognized for their experiments and investigations, and even after T.G.’s death, Hamilton House, still standing on Henderson Highway in Winnipeg, was the meeting place for a circle of Spiritualist mediums.
Further reading about the Spanish Flu on the Prairies
- From Spanish Flu to COVID-19, a Manitoba centenarian weighs in on pandemic life
- Voices of Pandemic Past
- Mennonites, Community, and Disease: The Impact of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic on a Mennonite Community in Manitoba
- The Great Pandemic and Stepping Up
- The Provincial Archives in Saskatchewan did an online exhibit on The Spanish Flu in Saskatchewan.
- The Saskatoon Western Development Museum also has a virtual exhibit on the Spanish Flu as well.
- History Matters: 1918 Spanish Flu led to Saskatchewan’s first female MLA
- Saskatoon got healthy dose of mixed messages amid Spanish Flu
- 100 years on: Spanish flu’s toll on Saskatchewan not forgotten
- Manitoba Mennonites and the State: Wartime Measures and the Influenza Pandemic in Hanover
- “The Bitter Flats”: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Saskatchewan
- A tale of two pandemic curves: COVID-19 and the 1918 flu in Winnipeg
- Insurmountable chaos: How 2 soldiers stopping in Winnipeg helped lead to 1,200 deaths from Spanish Flu
- How the Spanish flu compares to COVID-19: Lessons learned, answers still being pursued
- The Right to Live: The 1919 General Strike and Pandemic Influenza
- A Regina Leader-Post two-part seriesHistory repeating (Part 1): Comparing COVID-19 and Spanish flu in Regina
- History repeating (Part 2): Entertainment suffered during Spanish flu in Regina
Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed
- Manitoba child advocacy centre receives $2 million from the province.
- Winnipeg home prices saw a record-setting year-over-year increase last quarter.
- Manitoba invests $50 million to clean up orphaned and abandoned mines.
- Lack of sidewalk clearing leaves Winnipeggers with mobility impairments trapped inside.
- Roxy Lanes could face wrecking ball after being sold, heritage advocates fear.
Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed
- The Avian flu returns to Saskatchewan after more than 10 years
- A Regina man wins $70 million, making him Saskatchewan’s largest ever lottery winner.
- Residential school survivor has mixed emotions after watching memorial centre burn in Prince Albert.
- The Saskatchewan Roughriders will hold their training camp in Saskatoon for the next three years.
- Saskatchewan residents can now see a doctor for their health care needs on a virtual platform
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