Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: November 2016

1918 Spanish Flu led to Saskatchewan’s first female MLA

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

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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

Four Sask brothers serve in Second World War…only one returns home

Sometime after Remembrance Day in 1955, 20-year-old Tom McLellan went to see a movie in downtown Saskatoon. In those days, the feature film was preceded by a cartoon and then a newsreel of current events.

That’s when Tom sat bolt upright in his seat. On the screen, Governor General Vincent Massey and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, wearing waistcoats and top hats, solemnly looked on as Tom’s maternal grandmother, Regina Leboldus, lay a wreath at the national Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. Tom didn’t know that his grandmother had been chosen as the Silver Cross Mother, the first from Western Canada.

Regina and John Leboldus, a German Catholic couple from Vibank, Saskatchewan, had 12 children — six boys and six girls. Four sons (Peter, Martin, John, and Michael) would serve in the Second World War, but only one returned home. (Michael, a doctor, survived the war but died at an early age from cancer.)

Peter John (b. 1918) enlisted in the RCAF in February 1940 and trained as an observer in Ontario. During a flight from Toronto to Montreal later that summer, one of his flying buddies pulled a prank on him. Leaflets were dropped from their airplane over Ottawa, claiming that Pete was a “lonesome flier” who wanted to “correspond with a young lady.” Dozens responded to the address provided.

Pete was initially posted in northern Scotland with the No. 418 “City of Edmonton” fighter squadron. Over the next two years, he participated in several bombing raids over France and Germany, while earning his commission as a flying officer. He even had tea at Windsor Palace with Queen Elizabeth (the queen mom) and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.

On a night operation on Feb. 13, 1943, Pete’s Douglas Boston bomber aircraft was shot down over France. He is buried in the Grandcourt Commonwealth war graves cemetery, east of Dieppe.

John Anthony (b. 1922) enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in the Middle East in April 1943 as a gunner with RAF No. 142 Squadron. A noted singer and hockey player, Flight Sergeant Leboldus died when his plane, flying at low altitude through fog, crashed into a hillside during a raid on Turin, Italy on Nov. 24, 1943. John is buried in Genoa’s Stagliano cemetery.

Martin Benedict (b. 1921) was equally talented — on the guitar and piano — and equally determined to serve in the war. Like his older brother Pete, he attended Balfour Tech in Regina and then enlisted in the RCAF. Martin found himself stationed in Great Britain, not far from Pete. In fact, it was Martin who helped his brother into his parachute harness before he set off on his ill-fated mission over France.

Martin, a member of the No. 419 “Moose” Squadron, was killed during a bombing raid over Leipzig Germany on Feb. 20, 1944. The Halifax bombers had to contend with lousy weather and repeated air attacks from German fighters. Seventy-nine aircraft never returned. Sergeant Leboldus’ name is found among the more than 20,000 missing men and women on the Runnymede Air Force memorial in Egham, Surrey, England.

Tom McLellan had been told from a young age about his uncles’ war service — knew about their tragic deaths, all within a year of each other. But he never expected to see his grandmother on the movie screen as the 1955 Silver Cross mother.

Indeed, Regina Leboldus accepted the invitation to attend the national Remembrance Day services with trepidation. After her sons’ deaths, she vowed never to get into an airplane. By going to Ottawa, she demonstrated the same depth of courage as Peter, Martin, John, and Michael.

Tom never forgot his grandmother’s participation in the national Remembrance Day ceremony. Decades later, family friend Gerda Hnatyshyn, the wife of the Governor General Ramon Hnatyshyn, helped him find a copy of the newsreel. The hour-long CBC film is now a cherished keepsake.

Tom’s three uncles, in the meantime, have been memorialized in northern Saskatchewan as part of the province’s tribute to the men and women who gave their lives during the Second World War. Leboldus Lake, Leboldus Islands, and Leboldus Channel (roughly 56 degrees north and 107 degrees west) have been named in honour of Pete, John, and Martin.

These provincial geo-memorials (now numbering nearly 4,000) are a fitting reminder of their sacrifice — a special way to remember them.

They all deserve our thanks.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Regina Leboldus of Vibank, Saskatchewan was the Silver Cross Mother at the 1955 national Remembrance Day ceremonies. She lost three sons in the Second World War.
Photo Courtesy Tom McLellan

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

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