The first recorded case of Spanish flu in North America was an American soldier at a Kansas military base in March 1918. The virus arrived in Canada the following September. The Edmonton Journal’s first headline about the epidemic came Sept. 24, 1918: “Spanish Influenza Taking Many Lives in the East. Epidemic Still Spreading.”
On Oct. 4, Alberta Health Minister A.G. MacKay warned that 30-40 per cent of the population would likely catch the virus (MacKay himself later died of complications from the illness.)
Spanish flu tended to kill the young and fit. The real killer was often pneumonia, which typically set in a few days after the virus.
“There are all kinds of stories about people who were strong, healthy people and then they were dead,” said Lowe.
The first confirmed Alberta cases were in Drumheller. By mid-October, Edmonton was on edge.
City theatres purchased a full-page ad in the Journal, declaring they were “leaving no stone unturned to make our Theatres thoroughly safe and sanitary places for public attendance.”
They were forced to close anyway on Oct. 18, when the Edmonton Board of Health banned public gatherings and ordered schools and churches to shut their doors. Gauze masks became mandatory — the Journal even printed instructions for how to make one out of cheesecloth.
Reports began to roll in of local flu cases. On Oct. 19, the Journal reported 41 cases under quarantine, including a group of soldiers who had travelled on a troop train. Four days later, there were 1,035 cases in Alberta, 70 of them in Edmonton.
News of Edmonton’s first deaths came Oct. 24. Schools and hospitals were crowded with the sick — some 2,000 by that point. The University of Alberta converted Pembina Hall into a hospital.
Businesses struggled to stay open. The government forced stores and offices to remain closed until 1 p.m., historian Tom Monto wrote in Old Strathcona Before the Great Depression, to give employees time to help in “stamping out the flu epidemic” in their communities.
Suzanna Wagner, a history masters student at the U of A, studied Edmonton’s response to the flu for a project on its 100th anniversary. What struck her most was the grassroots response to the pandemic.
“There was a tremendous volunteer network set up,” she said.
One innovation was the relief districts. During the crisis, Edmonton’s mayor and local clergy divided the city into more than a dozen districts centred on an (empty) neighbourhood school.
“They used the schools as a headquarters,” Wagner said. An army of volunteers — many of them young, unmarried women — provided services for the sick, including nursing, child care, laundry, cooking and food delivery. Many of the relief workers themselves fell ill. “This was dangerous work,” said Wager. Most wore only a cheesecloth mask — changed every few hours — and a standard nursing smock. There were, like today, debates about the efficacy of mask wearing. Rubber gloves did exist, but it’s unclear if local health providers used them. Wagner notably found no evidence of hoarding during the 1918 outbreak.
By November 5, 1918, there were 9,206 Spanish flu cases in Alberta. Six days later, Armistice in the First World War was declared, and officials could not contain the jubilation. Photographs of local victory parades show revellers wearing flu masks, but they weren’t enough contain the spread. Three days later, there were 58 new cases in Edmonton.
Wagner said the flu eventually petered out. On November 30, the government lifted bans on public gatherings. The flu flared up once social isolation measures came to an end, but by May 1919, there were no cases in Edmonton, Wagner says. The illness returned the following two winters, but she said those were much smaller outbreaks with minimal societal disruption. In the end, 7,914 Edmontonians were treated for the flu. A total of 615 died.