In the spring of 1918 Canada had been at war in Europe for almost four years, and the news from the front was not good. The German Army had broken through the British lines around Saint-Quentin and the British Army was in full retreat. There was little attention paid to the increased activity of a virulent strain of the influenza virus, that was beginning to affect soldiers on the Front.
Image: [Women wearing masks against the Spanish Flu], c 1918-19, University of Waterloo.
Close to 100 years later, it is still not known where the “Spanish Flu” originated; the first reported cases came from a village in Spain called San Sebastian in May 1918, hence the name, but experts continue to debate its exact origins. One thing is clear however- the increased movement of humans around the world, and the concentration of millions of men in close quarters on the Western Front turned what might have been a small local outbreak in a global phenomenon.
The Canadian public began to experience the flu in the fall of 1918, and it is still thought today that it arrived in the country as the result of returned soldiers. The disease was unique in that it was most lethal for those between 20 and 45; it spread quickly through urban populations and into rural areas, in some cases wiping out entire communities in a span of days.
Canada’s size and lack of a centralised medical system made it particularly difficult to deal with the virus. At the time, the country had about 4 000 practicing doctors, and in isolated areas communities went for months without seeing a doctor under normal circumstances. The epidemic meant that it was even more difficult to get adequate medical treatment and many families were left to fight through it as best they could. Women were often called upon to help with nursing, and many found themselves in positions as informal medical practitioners helping multiple families in their area get through the flu.
While living in a rural area could limit medical help, life in cities during the flu epidemic was even more dangerous. Hospitals across Canada had more patients than they could handle, and informal treatment centres had to be set up for the cities’ poorest. Undertakers did not have enough room to store the bodies of those who had died, and in many cases flu victims were buried in unmarked or mass graves. Walk deep enough into an old city graveyard in Canada and you will likely find unnamed flu victims.
Organisation against the flu took place at a local level, and many forbade all kinds of public activity to try to prevent infection. The federal government even tried to limit Armistice Day celebrations on 11 November 1918 to prevent the spread of the flu, but were unable to prevent parades and public celebrations of the ending of the long war. Residents celebrated with their protective flu masks on instead.
By the time the flu ended in 1919 roughly 50 000 Canadians were dead, most of whom where of prime working age. The flu left thousands of orphans and families without a provider; combined with the over 66 000 war dead, the effects of the disease were deeply felt. The flu also exposed faults in the existing organisation of medical care, and the Department of Health was created in 1919 to help the country deal with future epidemics and health crises on a national level. Together, the war and flu were part of a moment of overwhelming social change for Canada; economics, social status, and the relationships between men and women would never be the same again.