As we go through the current pandemic, I wondered how my ancestors coped with similar pandemics in their lives. After all, including this one, Canadians have faced six flu pandemics since Confederation.1 Looking at their lives might help with what we’re dealing with now.
Turns out they faced much worse circumstances than we have so far, particularly during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. Few people living in Canada that year knew to limit contact until the end of the year, and the beginning of 1919. By then, most people saw someone they knew die.
The Spanish Flu killed almost as many Canadians as World War I did, but in a much shorter time.
It took four years of war to kill 51,000 Canadian soldiers and nurses.2
The Spanish Flu took only nine months to kill 50,000 Canadians during the fall of 1918 and the spring and summer of 1919. It killed my great great grandmother’s sister-in-law, Marie Amanda Gauthier Gourdinne.
Oulletteville in 1918
Mrs. Gourdinne lived in a close-knit francophone community called Ouelletteville, near Cluny, Alberta. The village stemmed from a community of 32 families who set up farms there in 1910.
A great many homesteaders from Ontario and Quebec joined them over the next decade, including my great grandmother Marie-Berthe (Martha) Charette, her two sisters, Ida and Eva, with their husbands and their brother Ernest.
The three sisters probably heard stories about the 1890 Russian flu pandemic from their parents, especially since their little sister Dora was born that year.
Still, nothing could match living through the fear and then reality of someone you love suffering from the disease.
At the beginning of his comprehensive tome about the Spanish Flu in Canada, researcher Mark Osborne Humphries describes the death of an 18-year-old soldier named George William F.
It wasn’t pretty.
“[George William F.] fought his symptoms for two days as he drilled, marched and played sports in the chilly autumn rain. By the 29th [of September], he had grown considerably worse and was forced into a hospital. There his condition quickly deteriorated. Within a couple of days, his breathing grew shallow and more infrequent as his pulse quickened to 112 beats per minute. His temperature climbed above 103 degrees. Blood dripped from his nose. On 4 October, doctors noted that his lips, and earlobes were beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen. His once slight cough became ‘considerable,’ and he began to complain of chest pain. A mild flu was rapidly progressing into a severe case of pneumonia. Although his doctors still hoped for recovery, his temperature remained high. On the night of 16 October, almost three weeks after entering hospital, his breathing quickened still more, rising above fifty shallow breaths per minute. The young soldier was gasping for air but his lungs were incapable of absorbing oxygen. At five the following morning, Gunner George William F. died from complications of Spanish flu. There was little doctors could do but watch him perish.”3
It didn’t start in Spain
The Spanish Flu got its name from the newspaper reports coming out of that country, which was one of the few places on earth that didn’t censor news reports due to the war.
That fact initially led people to blame immigrants for the virus spread.
Historical research eventually found multiple trigger events on military bases instead.
One strain began with a flu outbreak at a military base in Haskell, Kansas, for example. Researchers traced the transmission through American military camps until Polish troops brought it to Niagara-on-the-Lake in October 1918. It then spread throughout Ontario during the fall of 1918 and from there to new recruits who carried it across the country as they travelled to British Columbia to leave for Russia.4
The Spanish Flu hit Ouellettesville, Alberta on its way west. That’s where my ancestors lived.
Everyone knew everyone else in the town, and they were family, so the three sisters knew the 51-year-old Mrs. Gourdinne. Her suffering and later death must have been a shock.
I have notes from my grandmother saying “1918 was a hard year for the Gourdinne family due to the flu epidemic. Beloved grandmama died.”
Still, the three sisters out west and their family members living near Ottawa all escaped harm.
Limited Mortality from Russian Flu Exposure?
In retrospect, we know that their little sister Dora, who turned 28 in 1918, made the luckiest escape.
A study conducted by researchers in 2013 showed unusually heavy Spanish flu mortality among 28-year-olds.
“We posit that in specific instances, development of immunological memory to an influenza virus strain in early life may lead to a dysregulated immune response to antigenically novel strains encountered in later life, thereby increasing the risk of death. Exposure during critical periods of development could also create holes in the T cell repertoire and impair fetal maturation in general, thereby increasing mortality from infectious diseases later in life.”5
That process may have contributed to all the sisters’ dying soon after the second pandemic they lived through. None of them lived long after that.
Ida died of cancer in 1922.
Asian, Hong Kong and H1N1 flu pandemics
Martha and Dora were among 7,000 Canadians who succumbed to the Asian flu in 1957. My great grandmother Martha died in Edmonton on June 6. Her sister Dora died in Ottawa on October 23.
Eva moved back east to join her family in Ottawa. She survived the Asian flu to die a mere two years later.
The following pandemic, known as the Hong Kong flu, killed 4,000 Canadians in 1968, including my grandmother on my mother’s side. Agnes Maria Himphen died on October 13.
Luckily, no one I know died in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, although the outbreak killed 428 Canadians.
With all the research efforts underway across the country, I certainly hope that we’ll discover a vaccine for the current COVID-19 soon.
I’m praying that there won’t be any more deaths.
1Dickin, Janice, Patricia G. Bailey and Erin James-Abra. “Flu” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Published September 29, 2009; edited May 1, 2017. Accessed on March 24, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/influenza/.
2Spanish Flu information kit for students, Ontario Archives, http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/education/pdf/Spanish_Flu_in_Ontario_Lesson_Kit.pdf, accessed on March 24, 2020.
3Humphries, Mark Osborne. The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2013, p 3.
4Mitchell, Alanna. The outbreak and its aftermath, Canadian Geographic, August 23, 2018, https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/outbreak-and-its-aftermath, accessed March 25, 2020.