Canada’s second deadliest killer: influenza

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

World War I, the “Great War” of 1914 – 1918, gave Canada a record number of casualties for a single historical event: more than 60,000, mostly on foreign soil.  However, the event that caused Canada’s second largest loss of life occurred on Canadian soil. It was the spread of the Spanish flu (influenza) of 1918 – 1919, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 victims.
Despite the name, the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. Spain, neutral during the war and not subject to censorship, was the first country to report an epidemic. The flu came to Canada with troops returning from the European front to Halifax, Québec City, and Montréal, and quickly spread across the country. Native peoples suffered most – on a per capita basis, five times more than the rest of Canada. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that most of Canada’s resources, including medical and health services, were directed to the war effort.
What was most damaging about this flu is that it became a pandemic, affecting all inhabited regions of the planet. And unlike previous strains, it tended to kill the young and healthy as well as those with reduced immunity (the very young and the
elderly).
There was no vaccine nor effective treatment. Provincial and local attempts at quarantine measures proved inadequate. Much of the burden to attend to the sick and dying was left to local nurses, doctors, members of religious communities and good neighbours. The federal government’s action was minimal; its efforts were directed at the war and peace talks. But despite the attempts of the federal government to minimize news about the effects of the flu, the results were not only death, but also social disruption and economic hardship to many Canadians; businesses sustained significant losses, schools were closed, public events were cancelled. Many families lost their breadwinner and were left in dire
circumstances. Even the NHL finals for 1919 were cancelled!