Historic record shows danger of mass gatherings & premature relaunch

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

The third in a series of articles about the last global epidemic to reach Slave Lake and area – the Spanish Influenza.

The best way not to repeat history is to learn from it. In 1918 and 1919, the Peace Region including Slave Lake and High Prairie fell victim to the Spanish Influenza. The historic record shows both the danger of mass gatherings and the very real threat of a second wave of a virus.

At the time, the Grouard newspaper had closed, and there wasn’t one in Slave Lake (at the time Sawridge) or High Prairie. The closest newspapers were in Peace River.

These papers record the spread of the Spanish Flu in the Peace Country including a second wave of the virus. The potential of a second wave of COVID-19 is the reason that health officials and the government are focusing on a phased easing of restrictions.

By October 24, 1918, the virus was in the Peace River news.

The Peace River Standard Oct. 24, 1918: “the village authorities have done well to exercise precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic here. While no cases in this community have yet been reported, the closing of the schools, churches, theatres and cancelling of public meetings was a wise move.”

The same edition also laid out quarantine rules, which included health officers’ ability to inspect people on trains for symptoms. It was forbidden to “cough, sneeze, or expectorate (spit) in any public place, railway car or street car, unless into a handkerchief or other covering material carried on the person.”

By November 1, 1918 Peace River Record had the headline “Three deaths from influenza, but epidemic believed to be fairly under control locally.” All three had recently arrived in the community from elsewhere. A death in Bear Lake, by Grande Prairie was also recorded.

The Municipal District and village isolated themselves from each other and rest of the world.

There were over 6,000 cases in the province. In Edmonton and surrounding area, there were 14 new deaths, bringing the total to 49. In New York, people were burying the dead with steam shovels.

On November 21, 1918 in the Standard in the last seven days there had been no new cases in the village of Peace River and the last patient was sent home. However, at four mile house on the Grouard Trail, there were four new cases, 19 cases at Cadotte Lake, and five families had it at White Mud. The Peace village officers expected to lift the village quarantine the next Monday.

Unfortunately, there was a second wave of the virus.

Over the next while, headlines read “Epidemic not so bad as feared” (Nov. 5 1918 Record) and “’Flu’ is passing” (Nov. 21, 1918 Standard).

On December 20, 1918 a Record headline read, “Influenza epidemic becoming even more prevalent than on first appearance.” The article reads.

“The epidemic of a few weeks ago was mild as compared with its return, which appeared in the Vanrena district on Wednesday of last week and rapidly spread, until by Saturday, Dr. Fetherstone reported approximately 50 cases in the district from Blushy to Vanrena, with two deaths.

“The reappearance of the disease has also been reported from several parts of the Grouard district, there having been three deaths in Grouard on Sunday, and seven deaths in Prairie Lake, a settlement near Grouard.”

In 1918, the Town of Grouard had a population of 400. The village of Peace River had a population of 700 and the surrounding district of Peace had 500 registered farmers. The village of Westlock had a population of 85.

1918 population number for Sawridge and High Prairie aren’t readily available. The regions were however growing.

Some Dominion of Canada documents from the era describe the 164 miles (264 kilometre) rail ride from Edmonton to Sawridge. There were only a few scattered homesteads between Chisholm and Sawridge, but Sawridge had “two or three excellent quarter sections” surrounded by muskeg.

These same documents say in 1916, the agent of Dominion Lands office moved from Grouard to High Prairie to be near the railway line. In April 1915 to March 1916, there were 27 new homesteads in High Prairie area.

The next year there were 71. This was a large area as there were only nine Dominion Lands offices in Alberta. The nearest ones were in Peace River and Grande Prairie.

While the population numbers aren’t known, the list of people buried in the Sawridge Cemetery, by Old Town, gives a hint of how quickly the virus spread and how deadly it was. Of the 40 people buried in 1918 and 1919, 27 died during November and December, when the pandemic was active in Peace Region.

Marie Cardinal and Mary Ward died on November 4, 1918. Within a week of their deaths, 16 died. Seven died in the second week. The other four were spread out over the next month or so, with someone dying every four to twelve days (See ‘A snap shot of the Spanish Flu in Slave Lake’ April 8, 2020 Lakeside Leader).

There are also stories from the High Prairie region.

“Our Trail North” by Edith Van Kleek includes her struggle with Spanish Flu.

High Prairie had sent 19 young men to war. By the time, news of the armistice reached the community, only one of those men was still alive.

Edith was a teenager in 1918. Edith was working at a hotel in High Prairie.
She was the first one in High Prairie to get the flu. She was in bed for a week.

There was no doctors in High Prairie.

“After Christmas the flu became the terror of the community,” she writes. “Mr. Spaulding (who owned the hotel) had had some medical training and gave all his time now to visiting the sick.”

Five miles from High Prairie, the Hanna family had the flu. For eleven days, Edith nursed them in the families big kitchen – living room.

During this time, Edith wasn’t hungry, so she didn’t regain her strength. She had to go to the seven bed hospital in the village of Peace River. It took her two days by train to get there, because of a blizzard.

The flu effected everyone in the Peace Region regardless of skin colour.

Kinosayo of Driftpile (Andrew Willier) signed and negotiated Treaty 8 for the Lesser Slave Lake Bands in 1899, says the Swan River First Nations website.

The Kinosayo Museum in Kinuso on Swan River land is named after him.
Chief Kinosayo died from the Spanish flu, says museum director Jennifer Churchill.

After seven weeks in Peace River, Edith returned to find out that many people had died in High Prairie area. At the time, nine women were pregnant, all of them died.

Edith also relates that at one point in Whitefish First Nation there were 57 who had died of the flu waiting to be buried, because no one was well enough to bury them in the frozen ground.

Many years ago, Brian Pitcairn stumbled upon what may have been a mass grave from 1919 or 1920. He also found evidence that the Whitefish population had drastically decreased at that time. (See “History repeating itself? Wabasca blockaded itself during the 1918 flu epidemic” by Joe McWilliams in the April 22, 2020 Lakeside Leader).

The Sawridge Cemetery.

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