Canada History Week Day 3: Spanish Influenza

Near the end of World War I, a great epidemic spread. Between 1918 and 1920, Spanish flu, a strain of H1N1 influenza, infected around 500 million people worldwide, killing between 50-100 million. It was spread partially due to infected soldiers returning from the war. The flu reached the Lac La Biche region around the end of October and early November 1918. Newspaper articles from the Edmonton Bulletin reported that nearly every house had at least one report of influenza and half the Cree in north had been wiped out by December 20, 1918.

Edmonton Bulletin, December 20, 1918
Edmonton Bulletin, December 20, 1918

The following entries from the first week of November 1918 detachment diary of Constable Fred Moses of the Alberta Provincial Police show the quick spread of the disease. The epidemic occurred at the most inopportune time for the detachment, beginning right as they dealt with the recapture and subsequent investigation of Julien “Barboulier” Desjarlais and declining around the time of the Great Fire of 1919.

Frid; Nov; 1st.. Fine Day.. Spl Ladouceur & Cont Moses from Edmonton to Lac-la-Biche. Cont Moses sick, went to bed on arrival. Corpl McPherson sick.

Sat; 2nd..Fine Day.. Spl Ladouceur sick, off duty. Const Moses sick, off duty. 103.5 [degrees]. Corpl McPherson sick, off duty. 103.5 [degrees].

Sun; 3rd..All sick. Off duty.

Mon; 4th. Spl Ladouceur attending to sick families & town duty. Const Moses in bed with “Flu”. Corpl McPherson varying 101-105 [degrees].

Tues; 5th..Fine Day.. Spl Ladouceur around town helping sick families etc & trying to arrange for help for them. Const Moses in bed with “Flu” temperature unknown. Corpl McPherson 102-104-105

Wed; 6th. Spl Ladouceur hauled some water for sick family Nick Czerkas & around town assisting, Const Moses & family, around until late trying to get attendants for sick people. Const Moses in bed with “Flu”, temp unknown. Corpl McPherson 101, 104.5-105 very bad.

Thurs; 7th.. Fine Day.. Spl Ladouceur town duty & to Nick Czerkas & with team to sick returned soldier. Const Moses up out of bed first time as wife down. Corpl McPherson 102.5, improvement. News that Germany has surrendered.

Constable Fred Moses at Lac La Biche with his son, Rod. Circa 1920. Glenbow Archives NA-2928-12
Constable Fred Moses at Lac La Biche with his son, Rod. Circa 1920. Glenbow Archives NA-2928-12

Reports through the month included various deaths in the area by the 9th and the arrival of a doctor, Dr. Weeks, by train on November 29. At the end of the first month of influenza, Moses concludes the following:

November 1918 General Remarks. Dr. Weeks has arrived here and is energetically fighting the “Flu” the epidemic is taking dreadful toll here among the Indians and half-breeds and help is urgently needed as they will not help themselves, large families are down with it and total number of cases must run close to the 300 mark in this entire district. Many deaths are reported and no doubt a number are not reported & are unknown, such as trappers out in the bush.

The flu seemed to disappear around February 1919, only to return in April. However, this strain was not as harsh as the first. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Lac La Biche was burned down the month after on May 19.