On this day in 1918, Edmonton was in the grips of a deadly influenza pandemic.
The first reported Alberta cases of what was erroneously dubbed Spanish flu were linked to a train passing through Calgary on Oct. 2, 1918. When the virus reached Edmonton, it spread quickly. By Oct. 19, at least 40 people were infected, with more than a dozen in quarantine.
The pandemic came at a crucial time. Doctors and nurses were already in short supply, as many were involved in the war effort. Alberta's government had only existed for a touch over 13 years, but it moved quickly to bring in measures to slow the spread of the flu. Schools, churches, and other gathering places were ordered closed. Mask mandates were put into place, both indoors and out.
Edmontonians seemed much more resistant to mask-wearing than those living in Calgary. Eventually, the city's entire police force was put at the disposal of Minister of Municipal Affairs Alexander McKay, who directed them to arrest those breaking the mandate. Among those prosecuted for refusing to wear a mask was the president of Edmonton's health board. (McKay would become Alberta's health minister before dying of complications related to the flu.)
Despite these measures, the virus spread. Hospitals were soon overwhelmed. The University of Alberta's Pembina Hall was converted into a temporary hospital, housing hundreds of patients. With few resources and little understanding of the virus, panicked people turned to anything that could promise to keep the virus at bay, no matter how outlandish. Advertisements began touting cures made from fruit extracts, menthol, or compounds purchased from taxidermists. One recommendation even suggested leaving warm formaldehyde on the stove to avoid getting sick.
But amid the panic, there was also compassion. With so many severely ill or in quarantine, some families struggled with child care, cooking, or laundry. Volunteer workers began caring for their neighbours' needs, while volunteer nurses cared for the sick. Soon, the mayor and other city leaders devised a plan to split the city into 15 "relief districts". Each district was headquartered in a then-closed school, which served as a place to store supplies, take donations, and coordinate volunteers.
Flu cases began to drop in November 1918. By December, the province lifted its ban on public gatherings. By May 1919, there were no longer any reported cases. The following two winters saw more outbreaks, but nothing near the scale the city saw in the closing months of 1918. By the end of the pandemic, more than 600 Edmontonians had died of influenza.
Much of what happened in 1918 will seem similar to modern Edmontonians, still dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And influenza still remains a serious cause for concern in Alberta — this year's flu season has been more intense than most, with hospitalization rates climbing rapidly. Schools are once again a focus. The Edmonton Public School Board held an emergency meeting on Nov. 15 after more than 20,000 students were absent due to COVID, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus.