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Discover Our Heritage- The Last Pandemic


Thank you to Ladysmith & District Historical Society volunteers John and Esther Sharp, Rob Johnson, Dr. Ed Nicholson and Dr. Quentin Goodbody for research on the last pandemic to affect our communities — the Spanish influenza of 1918.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our society to its very foundation. Our schools are closed. Jobs lost; business could fail. People are worried about their future. These are the same worries that the people of Ladysmith faced during the Spanish flu in 1918.

In 1918, Canada lost over 50,000 people to the flu; B.C. lost 4,000 people, Ladysmith lost 25 people. In contrast, the COVID-19 virus, as of March 24, 2020, has infected 617 people and killed 13 in B.C. This is not to say that we are not in a critical situation because we are. We have to follow all the recommended steps prescribed by our heath authority.

The steps taken back in 1918 are similar attempts to what we are now taking.

In the fall of 1918, the world had been at war for four awful years, but the fighting was coming to a close. People were exhausted from the war effort and were looking to celebrate the end of hostilities. However, in September 1918, the first cases of a virulent form of flu — called Spanish influenza — were noted in Quebec City. The virus had likely been brought by troops returning home from the European front. Infection quickly spread in a wave across the country and was in B.C. by mid October. Medical authorities of the time looked for ways to check the spread of the disease and guess what? They came up with what we now call “social distancing” — though they didn’t call it that.

On October 18, 1918, Ladysmith Mayor E.C. Pannell issued an order “prohibiting the holding of any public meeting in any Church or Mission, the holding of any public or private school or class, any public auction, and the opening of any theatre, moving picture theatre, dance hall, pool room or gymnasium, and the holding of any lodge or social meeting, union or social club, and any place where any public or private dance is held.

In early November, to cope with the number of potential cases and increasing caseload, the Board of Health arranged to rent the Temperance Hotel (which was at the corner of High Street and First Avenue) to be used as an emergency hospital. The Board of Health also asked school teachers and other volunteers to work at the emergency hospital.

Around November 2, the hospital was helping 14 cases. The federal government arranged for Dr. Edward Montgomery to be posted in Ladysmith as chief civilian medical officer. Dr. Montgomery came directly from military service. He set out to arrange order out of the chaos caused by the pandemic here in Ladysmith. Dr. Montgomery stayed on to serve the people of Ladysmith until his death at the age of 37 in 1923 and is buried in our town graveyard.

By October 26, The Chronicle noted few cases in Ladysmith as compared to Nanaimo and credited the proactivity of implementing preventive measures. October 29 saw an advertisement put out by the Town urging people experiencing symptoms: “See your doctor at once — This disease is serious — Be on the watch — Help keep it down. Keep away from crowds — Keep your bowels open [yes, it really said that!] — Avoid common drinking cups, don’t cough, sneeze or spit without using your handkerchief.”

By November 5, the number of cases had markedly increased, and the nursing staff in the emergency hospital became overwhelmed — this remedied by the nuns stepping in to help and through an appeal to teachers to offer their services. While people continued to work, employees were made to wear masks. It was noted on November 9 that the intensity of the flu was waning in eastern Canada, with the likelihood there of easing restrictions on meetings the following week. Meanwhile, the infection rate was still strong in western Canada. “Altogether the situation is looking well in Ladysmith, and it now remains with the people to assist in every way in preventing the spread of the disease.” Mid November saw many disruptions to businesses due to staff illness.

By November 30, it appeared the worst was over. Bans on public gatherings were being relaxed in many municipalities in B.C. Many Ladysmith people were anticipated to attend an Armistice Ball in Duncan, on December 5. Nanaimo, having been previously hard hit, closed its emergency hospital that day, citing lack of need for it.

On December 7, the influenza situation had improved in Ladysmith, and many hoped that in eight to ten days, they would see the end of the epidemic in the town. By December 16, Council (also acting as the city’s Board of Health) was discussing closing the emergency hospital. December 21 saw the situation continuing to improve, with only one new case referred to the emergency hospital. By January 1, 1919, the ban on social activities had been lifted in Chemainus, and the young people were enjoying themselves in many ways — basketball games and a dance at the Athletic Hall on New Year’s Day. On January 11, Chief of Police Allen, acting as sanitary inspector for Ladysmith, reported that there had been 279 cases of Spanish flu and 179 houses quarantined. The number of deaths was not reported, but we know there were some from newspaper articles and obituaries. Discussion in Council involved a replacement building for the emergency hospital, the owners of the Temperance Hotel wanting the use of their building back.  January 13 saw the public schools reopen after being closed for just short of three months.


So, the effects of the Spanish influenza pandemic in Ladysmith were short and sharp (mid October to early December 1918). Proactive implementations set by the Town authorities, through physical distancing measures, setting up an emergency hospital to look after and isolate the most serious cases, emplacing medical staff prior to the infection taking hold, and home quarantining those infected with lesser symptoms during the passage of the pandemic, were credited with reducing the effects of the flu and saving lives.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? While isolation and closures may seem frustrating today, it’s important to remember that these same actions in the past were successful in minimizing the effects of that pandemic, which was much more contagious and deadly, killing 25 people in Ladysmith, than COVID-19.

Spanish Flu: Its effect on First Nations

By Quentin Goodbody, phd

The global effects of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were devastating, with estimates ranging widely from 25 to 100 million succumbing to the infection.

In Canada, there were 30–50,000 thousand deaths, representing a 2.5 per cent mortality rate of those infected. In B.C., approximately 30 per cent of the population was affected. The First Nations were particularly badly hit. Confident statistics are hard to come by, but it was estimated that the infection rate amongst the Indigenous population was up to nine times that of the European settlers. There were a number of reasons for this.

The 1918 flu followed on a series of pestilences (measles, smallpox, tuberculosis), which had severely depleted and weakened the First Nations population since the 1850s. Adoption of European-style housing with crowded, under-ventilated conditions increased transmission of diseases. So too did the interruption of traditional subsistence patterns in favour of seasonal employment in canneries and fruit/hop-picking operations where workers lived in close quarters in generally unsanitary conditions. Canning and harvesting were at their peak during the arrival of the flu in the fall of 1918. When flu hit the canneries, workers left and returned home, bringing the infection with them to their villages. The disease spread via the transportation corridors of the time — railways and steamships. The number of flu-related deaths was exacerbated among the young by pre-existing health conditions, in particular tuberculosis, which was common in residential schools.

Compounding the problem was a low level of medical service to the Indigenous population. The government had appointed departmental physicians and strongly “encouraged” adoption of European medicine, banning traditional ceremony. The quality of the physicians serving the First Nations was often questionable, as there was little incentive to offer good service. (In 1902, payment of doctors had been changed from “pay per visit” to a low fixed salary.) Why would a physician spend more time on a reserve when paying non-Native patients beckoned?

Absent of effective European medicines, many First Nations turned to traditional remedies for relief. These included use of devil’s club, swamp gooseberry, water hemlock and sweat baths, combined with smoke from mentholated sage brush. Apparently, these proved as, if not more, effective than the European medicines in alleviating some of the symptoms, but they did not offer a cure.

This is a sad history. Unfortunately, First Nations people are still today at a disadvantage compared to most other Canadians in terms of health, as in other ways. Steps are, however, being taken to improve the situation.

Since October 2013, in B.C., the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is responsible for administering a variety of health programs and services. The FNHA emerged from a number of tripartite agreements between B.C. First Nations, the Province of B.C. and the Government of Canada. It strives to improve First Nations health outcomes and close the gaps that exist between First Nations people and the rest of the BC population.

Let us ensure that today, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, that First Nations receive the same level of care and attention as do other groups within our society. We are composed of different cultures where everyone is precious.

About the author: Angie

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