Saskatchewan

A 'black period in Regina's history': Memory of Spanish flu haunts, 100 years later

One hundred years after the Spanish flu hit Regina, amateur historians reflect on the impact it left on the city.

The first death was recorded in Regina on Oct. 7, setting off two months of chaos

A gravestone at the Regina Cemetery on 4th Avenue. (Photo by Kenton De Jong)

Moss grows over twin graves, the larger one for a mother born in Romania, the smaller for her young daughter born in Regina, their black and white portraits fading away. Both are 100-year-old victims of the Spanish flu, that lie together now forever at Regina Cemetery.

The first cases of Spanish flu were emerging in Canada in July 1918 — at this point in time a century ago, government agencies and city officials knew it was a matter of time before it hit Regina.

But the city's citizens and the news of the day were more focused on the war, or more trivial matters like movies playing at the theatre and fall shopping trends, said Regina amateur historian and travel blogger Kenton de Jong.

"If we went back 100 years ago today, what we would see is a city that didn't know this was coming," he said.

The creeping black fog would descend on the city over two chaotic months, in which doctors would be hard-pressed to keep up with hundreds of people falling sick and dying. Movie theatres, schools and pool halls would shutter their doors, with families painting and nailing their windows down for fear the flu would float in through the air.   

"It was just such a dark time in our history where the city went into a complete lockdown; we had to hire extra gravediggers," said De Jong. "It's just this depressing black period in Regina's history that nobody ever really talks about."   

Kenton De Jong is a travel blogger and amateur historian who worked in partnership with Heritage Regina to have a memorial installed at Regina Cemetery, in honour of all those who died of Spanish Influenza. (CBC News)

The city's first Spanish flu death would be recorded on Oct. 7, the first in a line of dominos of death.

"Unlike this year, it was a warm fall," said De Jong. "The ground wasn't frozen, so they could get them buried pretty fast, but they had to hurry."

By Nov. 26, 261 people had died in Regina, in the most crippling first and second waves of the pandemic. By the end of the less deadly third wave in 1920, 330 people had died in the city, while more than 5,000 died across the province.

Several of those victims lie at Regina Cemetery, including Romanian mother Paraskiva Tomo Radu, and her daughter Amelia.

The gravestones of Paraskiva Tomo Radu and her daughter Amelia can be seen at Regina Cemetery. (CBC News)

In the summer months, De Jong takes people on tours of the cemetery, sharing stories from the city's history, and of the dark chapter of Spanish flu.

On the weekend night, the trees are bare and leaves rustle underfoot, but the cemetery is silent and empty of everything but the echo of memory.  

"At the time it was one of the country's largest disasters," noted Jackie Schmidt, chair of Heritage Regina, of the Spanish flu.

The future of the city was shaped as it made its way through the twin horrors of First World War and the pandemic of Spanish flu, that is estimated to have killed anywhere between 25 to 100 million people worldwide.

"It shows the sense of community the citizens of Regina had in coming out to help their citizens in a time of need," said Schmidt. "That's important nowadays, to show that sense of pride, and pride of place."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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