It’s flu season again. People are encouraged to get vaccinated to reduce their chance of getting sick and spreading this year’s flu virus.
There was no such protection against the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. It’s been estimated that more than 20 million people died worldwide.
Soldiers returning from the First World War brought the virus from Europe to Canada, spreading it across the country as they returned to their homes by rail. Fifty thousand Canadians died, 5,000 in Saskatchewan alone (more than the number of provincial dead from the Great War).
The disease reached Saskatchewan in October 1918 and struck with amazing speed. Victims often died within 24 hours.
Cities responded by closing schools and placing a ban on public gatherings to try to restrict the contagion. Oct. 20, 1918 was the first “churchless” Sunday in the history of the province. One observer in Saskatoon likened the empty streets to “a city of the dead.”
One of the safest places during the epidemic was the University of Saskatchewan. President Walter Murray placed the entire campus under quarantine, except for Emmanuel College, which became an emergency treatment centre, staffed mostly by women volunteers.
The story was quite different in other parts of the city and the rest of the province. The impromptu celebrations at the end of the Great War exposed more people to the virus, and the number of deaths escalated. More than 2,500 people — half the total provincial toll from the flu — died in November 1918.
Rural Saskatchewan was hit hardest by the flu. The Royal Northwest Mounted Police immediately placed stricken Indian reserves under quarantine. This measure may have limited the spread of the virus, but it did little to help the resident population, whose health was already compromised by inadequate medical care and poor living conditions.
The death rate in the Battlefords agency alone was four times the provincial rate during the epidemic. Further west at the Onion Lake reserve, trader Sydney Keighley reported that as many as 75 Indians had died and that “the church was piled high with bodies.”
The situation at residential schools, where both students and teachers became ill, was little better. At the Onion Lake Catholic boarding school, nine aboriginal children died in November 1918, even though the building had been under quarantine since mid-October.
In farming districts, meanwhile, the natural inclination of many people was to head to the nearest town or village to face the epidemic with friends and be closer to medical aid. The crowding together, however, only facilitated the spread of the virus, and many communities, especially along major rail lines, adopted quarantines.
Isolated homesteads ironically offered the best protection, unless someone brought the disease to the farm. Shirley Keyes Thompson recalled how her husband Lowell returned from the annual grain growers meeting in Regina with the flu.
“We felt not unlike sheaves being dropped by the binder,” wrote the Biggar-area farm wife. “We were in a state of siege and the enemy was at the door.”
One of the victims was Magnus Ramsland, the Liberal representative for the Pelly constituency in the Saskatchewan Legislature. The provincial government, led by William Martin, thought that Ramsland’s widow Sarah would be the perfect candidate to assume his seat.
Saskatchewan women had secured the vote in February 1916, but no woman had been put forward as a candidate for either of the two major provincial parties, let alone been elected to the legislature. Sarah Ramsland would change that.
The Martin government did not ask Ramsland to run in the 1919 Pelly byelection because she was a woman. Rather, the Liberals wanted to provide the widow and her children with a decent income. It was also believed that her candidacy would generate a sympathy vote.
Premier Martin made the customary visit to the riding during the byelection, but never once mentioned the party’s candidate by name. Nor did women’s issues enter into Liberal campaign strategy. It did not matter. Ramsland handily won the seat by a slightly smaller margin than her husband two years earlier.
Ramsland spent the next six years in the Saskatchewan Legislature before losing her seat in the 1925 provincial election. She might never have ended up in politics — becoming Saskatchewan’s first female MLA — if her husband had not died from the flu.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:The 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic reached Saskatchewan near the end of the Great War
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.