Manitoba

'Halloween parties banned': 1st wave of Spanish flu in 1918 looked a lot like today, says Brandon historian

"Halloween parties banned for this year."  That sobering headline ran in the Brandon Sun on Oct. 30, 1918, as the first cases of the Spanish influenza had just arrived in the southwestern Manitoba city.

Gatherings were cancelled and people learned to make masks as flu hit southwestern Manitoba in October 1918

Three men, believed to be in Alberta, are shown wearing masks to protect themselves during the Spanish influenza pandemic. 'Masks were recommended across Canada,' says Brandon General Museum and Archives administrator Alyssa Wowchuk. Much like today, instructions for making masks at home circulated. (Winnipeg Tribune Archives/University of Manitoba)

"Halloween parties banned for this year." 

That sobering headline ran in the Brandon Sun on Oct. 30, 1918. The first cases of the Spanish influenza had just arrived in the southwestern Manitoba city, bringing concerns about hospital capacity and whether there were enough resources to care for those who fell ill. 

"'History repeats itself' is a common phrase, and you can definitely see it here," said Alyssa Wowchuk.

Throughout the fall, the administrator of the Brandon General Museum and Archives has been sharing glimpses of life in the Wheat City during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic via social media.

The grim headlines and newspaper clippings carry special meaning not only for history buffs, but also because of the striking similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world today. 

"The BGMA is Brandon's local museum, so I kind of wanted to bring it closer to home and give locals an idea of what it was like 102 years ago," Wowchuk told CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon.

The first seven cases of the Spanish flu were reported in Brandon on Oct. 14, 1918, months after the earliest cases appeared elsewhere. In some respects, the city had some advance warning.

That prompted a shutdown of churches, schools, theatres and other venues where people gathered, a day prior to the report of the city's first cases. 

"Flu is bound to come to Brandon; be ready for it," read a headline in the Brandon Sun on Oct. 9, 1918.

Masks recommended, churches close 

"Masks were recommended across Canada," said Wowchuk, adding that, much like today, instructions for how to make masks at home began to circulate. The instructions, circulated via newspaper, touted material like cheesecloth and old cotton shirts as suitable material.

As with today, church meetings and other large gatherings were shut down.

While church services now have moved to platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live, in 1918, a portion of the Saturday paper was reserved for faith leaders to share their weekly messages with their congregations. 

Michael White studied the impact the pandemic had on the city as a history student at Brandon University. He said it appears the onset of the pandemic in 1918 was a blow to a health-care system that had just begun to develop vaccines, with research into different germs and bacteria in its infancy.

"When it hit as hard as it did it probably shook the confidence of the health system," he said. "They were sort of probably held up to a higher standard than what they could deliver."

He said news of the incoming pandemic was slow to arrive in Brandon and southwest Manitoba, compared to updates from the front lines of the First World War.

"We didn't know much about it before it got here, which of course is very different from the modern experience." 

While information travelled at a snail's pace, people were aware at the time that Winnipeg had already been dealing with a surge in cases, White says. The first cases in the Manitoba capital were reported on Oct. 5, 1918. 

Halloween cancelled 

By the end of October 1918, Brandon had gone from its first few cases of the Spanish influenza to more than 170, with five deaths. 

"Unfortunately, Halloween 1918 was cancelled," said Wowchuk. "October is when Brandon really saw the first big hit, so everyone was on high alert."

Wowchuk said the further she dug into the archives, the more curious she became about the human toll of the pandemic 

"These were real people, there's real lives," she said. "A lot of other stuff was happening during the Spanish flu." 

As the pandemic spread and the First World War entered its final days, there was also a prohibition on alcohol in Manitoba.

There were calls in Brandon to end that prohibition, because some believed alcohol could be used as a defence against the Spanish flu.

On a more personal level, there are also the victims, Wowchuk said, recalling reading the story about a mother who lost both her sons — one as an infant, and the other to the Spanish flu after he arrived home from the war. 

People got 'bored' with Spanish flu

White said he's seen a striking similarity in the attitudes of some people over the course of that pandemic and the one we are facing now. 

"The idea that people seem to have gotten bored of dealing with the pandemic, so we've decided it's not a thing anymore" is "exactly what happened with the Spanish influenza," he said.

He believes the city was hit with three different waves of the flu, though acknowledges record keeping was shoddy back then. 

He said another lockdown was initiated in Brandon in December 1918, followed by another wave the next spring.

As the current pandemic continues, Wowchuk plans to keep posting pieces of Spanish flu history via the museum's social media channels. She's confident Manitobans can get through a pandemic again.

"This is not the first time we as a community have gone through something like this," she said. "They recovered then, and hopefully we can band together and recover today as well."

About the Author

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.

With files from Sam Samson and Nolan Kehler

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