At the beginning of 2020 nobody imagined that we would have a global lock down due to a new pandemic. That was the sort of thing that happened in Europe in the middle ages but not here in Canada. It’s a shock to all of us and especially to those who have a parent or grandparent who has succumbed to the virus. It has changed everything, absolutely everything. Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask. Wash those hands and then wash them some more. Don’t stand too close to anyone and go home. Those are the instructions we receive. Do we listen? Are the instructions too much or too little? When will it end or will it even end? These are strange times. Sad times, and unprecedented. Hold on there and scratch that comment “unprecedented”. This isn’t the new normal, it’s the normal we forgot.
I recently visited northeast Alberta with a friend and our goal was to photograph old structures such as churches, schools and homesteads. The first place we stopped was a church with a large graveyard behind it. Once I had photographed the church I walked over to an old fellow who was putting a few tools away after maintaining and cleaning up one or more grave sites, including his father’s grave. His name was Reg so we introduced ourselves and he asked where we are from. I said the city but then thinking that might cause him some concern I added, “Edmonton where there are less than 50 active cases of the virus”. He brushed away any concerns and said, as he pointed to the furthest edge of the graveyard, “that’s from the big pandemic; the Spanish Flu”. He was pointing at numerous crosses with no names on them, and added, “there are a lot more with no marker at all and the records from that far back are not very good so we don’t know who they were”. Reg explained how there were so many deaths from the Spanish Flu that sometimes there was nobody left to buy a proper stone to mark the graves. We talked for a while and then returned to photography, including some of those crosses with no names. I’ve seen many rural cemeteries with lots of burials dated 1918 & 1919 (and actually continuing into the 1920s) so I’m familiar with what happened back then but this area must have been hit especially hard based on the numbers I could see in field.
First lets find some basic facts about the “Spanish Flu.” I searched the internet and found a lot of information but it took a bit longer to find information specific to Alberta or at least Canada. Eventually I found an excellent article by the CBC that provides a lot of information. I’m going to quote one section of that article but feel free to click on the link for the full story.
“The disease hit the province in three waves. The first, in the spring of 1918, was relatively mild. But over the summer of 1918 the virus mutated, and the second wave was catastrophic; between September and December that wave killed 90 per cent of the people who died from the Spanish flu.
“One of the really unusual things about the virus is that it often presented with its first symptoms and people were dead within 24 hours,” said Hilden.
Some died from the flu itself, others from complications afterward.
“The weird thing about this virus is that it was so aggressive that it — we think, anyway — overstimulated people’s immune systems, so their bodies went into hyperactive defence and killed healthy tissues as well as the virus. Especially in lungs.”
The third wave began in the spring of 1919, Hilden said, and was also fairly mild. It coincided with soldiers coming back from the First World War.
The Spanish flu confounded doctors, who several times thought they were close to a cure. But it ultimately took 87 years to sequence the characteristics of the H1N1 gene”.
The article goes on to state that it’s estimated that over 4,000 people died from the Spanish Flu in Alberta. In Canada the number of deaths is estimated to be 50,000 (federal sources site 55,000 deaths in Canada which is nearly as high as the 60,000 Canadians who died in WW I) and worldwide the deaths could be as high as 100 million people. Interestingly the virus first arrived in Alberta through Calgary. The article says, “The Spanish flu arrived in the province at 3 a.m. on Oct. 2, 1918, when a dozen soldiers were evacuated from a cross-country troop train in Calgary, said Hilden”.
The more links that I clicked on the more interesting facts I discovered. Likely I had learned all of this in my distant past but there’s nothing like living during a pandemic to make some facts stick better than they did when I was a child in school. For example I knew that Spain was getting a bum rap from us calling the 1918 to 1920 influenza pandemic the Spanish Flu but I didn’t know why that name had stuck. Here the Canadian Encyclopedia was most inciteful.
“The name Spanish flu emerged as a result of media censorship by the military in Allied countries during the First World War. These countries suppressed public reports of the viral infection and the death of soldiers. However, in Spain, which was neutral during the war, the media was able to widely report the high incidence of death from the illness. The virus became associated with Spain as a result”.
“The origins of the pandemic are debated. Four locations are often considered the source of the initial outbreak: England, France, China or the United States”.
The two images below resonate like echoes from the past. False cures and people resisting the instructions to stay at home. Nobody was cured of the Spanish Flu by eating onions but at least they were healthy and nutritious so no harm was likely done either. Notice the masks that the people are wearing in the second image of Edmonton at the end of WW I? The need to celebrate the end of the war could not keep the people from taking to the streets for the victory parade on Jasper Avenue.
I don’t find cemeteries to be morbid. Rather they are like history textbooks but more intense than a book. Below is a beautiful tiny Ukrainian Catholic Church with some markers that have recently been repaired to look like new. One has a pinwheel attached to it that couldn’t be more than a few weeks old. It shows a date of death of 1922 so it may or may not have been the Spanish Flu that caused this eight year old to die so young. But what tragedy took the lives of the mother, father and another baby in 1923? Those were difficult times but isn’t it wonderful that people still bring toys and flowers to brighten up the marker after all those years?
Take care of yourselves during this 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and especially during the inevitable second and third waves. The second wave of the Spanish Flu was much worse than the first one. History does tend to repeat itself.
Now let’s end this blog with a couple of the images that were the main purpose of our trip up north.
History tells us that indigenous people suffered badly from all sorts of viruses that were unintentionally brought over from Europe. The native people didn’t have a natural resistance to the virus because they hadn’t been exposed to them before. History repeated itself when the Spanish Flu spread across the country. Above you can see a commemorative plaque for the unmarked graves in this area for the many indigenous families that died of the Spanish Flu. This was found near Hines Creek in north-western Alberta.