Arrival: The Flu Comes to Canada

Three Canadian men wearing masks

Three Canadian men wearing masks during the Spanish flu pandemic, c. 1918. (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-025025. © Expired)

Luggage disinfecting room, Grosse-Ile

The luggage disinfecting heat room at Grosse-Ile, where passengers' baggage would be cleansed of germs. (Public Works Dept. Coll. / Library & Archives Canada / PA-046810)

Quarantine building at Grosse-Ile

The quarantine building at Grosse-Ile. (D.A. McLaughlin / Library & Archives Canada)

How did Canada prevent the spread of disease? 

The Canadian public health system was still in its infancy in 1918. In fact, the Federal Department of Health would not be created until the following year. Some provinces did not even have dedicated health departments.

Control of epidemic illness was largely based on the principle of quarantine. Since the late 1800s the Canadian government had tried to control the spread of epidemics into the country by stopping ships suspected of carrying sick passengers at quarantine stations, such as Grosse Île in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. At these stations people were required to wait while their clothing and belongings (and in some cases, their bodies) were inspected and disinfected. This system was founded on a crucial misconception: that any epidemic would enter Canada from overseas, via ships.

How did the Spanish Flu come to Canada?

It is commonly believed that the second and most deadly wave of the Spanish Flu was spread into Canada by soldiers returning from Europe. However, large demobilizations had not yet begun by the time the flu peaked in the fall of 1918, as the armistice ending the First World War was not signed until November 11th.

Historians instead believe that the second wave entered Canada overland from the United States. Some of the first cases were recorded amongst American and Canadian soldiers in barracks at the US-Canadian border at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Other early cases appeared in south-east Quebec where American civilians were attending the Catholic Eucharistic Congress. The path of the virus dodged quarantine protocols at sea ports and quickly spread into Canada.

Fight the Flu!

A bulletin prepared by the Nanaimo Board of Health to inform citizens on how to protect themselves from the flu. (Item I-67752, BC Archives.)

Provincial Health Dept. Advises What To Do If It's Spanish Flu

Advice from the B.C. government on how to prevent the spread of the flu. This article appeared in Smithers' Interior Times newspaper on October 19th 1918. (Newspapers.com)

How did Canada respond?

While the Spanish Flu was not introduced to Canada by soldiers returning from Europe, the movements of military personnel across the country did help spread the virus. By 1918 Canada had more soldiers in uniform than at any other point in the war.

As the Spanish Flu began to spread throughout the country, the reaction from Canadian military and federal officials was uncoordinated and largely ineffective. There was not yet any federal body overseeing public health as a whole. Decisions regarding quarantine and treatment were largely left to local governments and health authorities, who had no power over the military. Without any federal or military quarantine imposed on them, infected soldiers mobilized for service in Europe and Siberia travelled across the country on trains, spreading the virus as they went.

How did British Columbians prepare?

As news of the outbreak spread eastwards across Canada in the fall of 1918, British Columbia anxiously awaited its arrival.  The Provincial Government passed an order-in-council on October 5th giving municipalities permission to ban all public gatherings should a flu outbreak occur.

Pamphlets, notices and newspaper articles distributed by the BC Provincial Board of Health and local medical authorities provided advice to readers on how they might avoid contracting the flu. At that time disease and illness were often seen as being closely connected to “dirtiness”, including poor hygiene or poor housekeeping. In order to avoid the flu, citizens were advised to “...keep a clean mouth, clean skin, clean clothes. Do not use [any items] which have been used by others but not thoroughly washed.”

Isolation was considered an important combative measure as well. In addition to implementing formal quarantines, health officials encouraged the public to avoid crowding, and to consider the personal space of others. “Smother your coughs!” ordered one publication. “Others do not want the germs you are trying to throw away!”.

"..if you are infected, do not pass [the germs] on. They are poison. Better safe than sorry. Better safe than cause sorrow." 

- "Fight the Flu," Item I-67752, BC Archives.

"Be unsociable for a change. Allow no visitors." 

- "Fight the Flu," Item I-67752, BC Archives.

Arrival: The Flu Comes to Canada