Albertans in the 1918 pandemic
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
I lost two of my great-grandparents during the Spanish Influenza pandemic- one from each side of my family. I have thought about them often over this past year, wondering if I am doing the right things, and if they would approve of what we are doing today in Alberta to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The 1918 influenza pandemic, often called the Spanish flu, hit Alberta hard in the fall of 1918, and returned again in the fall/winter of 1919/1920. It was a very fast acting virus, that tended to attack the young and strong, including those in their 20’s and 30’s. In October of 1918, Edmonton’s schools, churches and theatres were closed, as well as “all unnecessary gatherings of people in stores, street corners, and other public places.”
The situation in Calgary, Medicine Hat and elsewhere was similar, but restrictions in some parts of Alberta went even further to quarantine entire cities and towns, including Lethbridge, Taber, Pincher Creek, and Rocky Mountain House.Quarantine meant that no one could travel to or leave the city or town, and train tickets were no longer sold to those destinations.
Masks were the law in Edmonton with a $50 fine for violation. According to a November 1918 statement from Alberta provincial health officials shown below, the people of Edmonton “…speaking generally, have been zealously observing the mask order and specific instructions are out not to molest people who are doing their best, but to grab immediately the bully who swaggers into a crowd and thinks he can defy the law, no matter who he is. The law is clear and must be enforced rigidly with reason.”
Also, “No Sensible person should find fault with rigid enforcement of this law where necessary. It must be safety first all along the line.”
*Just a small snippet- The full article can be found at the link in the footnote.
The same article discussed the limitations that city council had put on business hours. As to dissidents, the statement says “There are a few kickers. There always will be. These fellows ought to know that dead men don’t do business in this world and they will do none in the next, as their goods won’t stand the heat.”
Wow. Our Great-grandparents didn’t mess around!
The flu pandemic had serious impacts on the relatively small population of Alberta, and the impacts on my ancestors were great.
Léonie Lamoureux Lepage and Alcide Lepage ca. 1910
My great-grandparents, Alcide and Léonie Lepage farmed in Lamoureux, Alberta, which is about 6 km from Edmonton today. When the flu pandemic hit in 1918, they were 30 and 28 years old respectively, and had three daughters. Their one-year old daughter, Simonne caught influenza around Christmas time, and died a week later on 30 December 1918.
Alcide also contracted the flu about a week before Christmas. According to family lore, he was on the mend, but had to return to work, since farm chores can’t wait. One of his neighbours was also sick, so Alcide went to milk their cows and take care of some of their pressing chores, just as he was probably assisted by neighbours the week prior. Unfortunately, Alcide did too much too soon, and suffered a relapse, dying on 2 January 1919.
In less than three days, my great-grandmother lost both her baby and her husband. Léonie and her five and seven year-old daughters moved to Edmonton to live with Léonie’s parents. Apparently, Léonie never fully recovered from the loss, and was always very quiet.
Mary Etta Doyle Conroy ca. 1912
Fred Conroy and son ca. 1914
On the other side of my family, my great-grandparents Fred and Mary Etta Conroy were ranching in Wetaskiwin when the flu pandemic reached Alberta in 1918. They had five children under the age of six, including a new baby who was born in December of 1918. Fred caught the flu in January of 1919, as evidenced by these letters sent to the brand office, where Mary Etta was trying to renew Fred’s cattle brand, but couldn’t discuss the details with him since he was ill and in quarantine away from the family.
Luckily, Fred recovered from the flu. But in the fall of 1919, a second wave returned and this time Mary Etta caught the flu, dying in February of 1920. According to family lore, she had attended a dance on Friday, and was dead by Sunday. I don't think there were restrictions on gatherings in Wetaskiwin at the time, but even so, if the story is true, her decision to attend probably cost her her life.
Fred was not able to care for all of his children and continue to work the ranch alone. The baby was sent to live with relatives until she was two years old. The four older children were sent to a convent, which was an unhappy experience for them. Eventually the children returned to live with their father, but Fred struggled greatly with the loss of his wife.
We might feel that the restrictions we are going through now are unprecedented, but the reality is that Alberta has been here before. Laws were passed before, just as they are now, in order to slow the spread and benefit the collective good. We should learn from the experiences of our Albertan ancestors to make sure that we do everything we can now to stop the spread of COVID-19.
 “Public Places in Edmonton to Close Tonight.,” The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 18 October 1918, p. 13, col. 1; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 25 November 2020).  “City Theatres and all Public Places Closed,” The Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 18 October 1918, p. 24, col. 5-7; digital image, Newspapers.com(www.newspapers.com : accessed 25 November 2020).  “The Influenza,” The Red Deer Advocate (Red Deer, Alberta, Canada), 1 November 1918, p. 1, col. 7; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 25 November 2020).  “Mask order is legal and can be rigidly enforce where it is being openly Disobeyed,” The Morning Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), 11 November 1918, p. 3, col. 1-2, p.7, col. 1, Peels’s Prairie Provinces (http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/EDB/1918/11/11/3/ : accessed 25 November 2020).  Alberta Death Registration, Fort Saskatchewan, Record no. 4155 of 1918 , Simone Lepage; Accession GR 2015.1540, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton.  Alberta Death Registration, Fort Saskatchewan, Record no. 1? of 1919, Alcide Lepage; Accession GR 2015.1540, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton.  Cancelled Brand File, Fred Conroy (1915-1953); Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation, Burt Sheppard Library & Archives, Cochrane, Alberta.  “News of the District: Wetaskiwin,” Edmonton Bulletin, 26 February 1920, p.2 col. 6; digital image, Peel’s Prairie Provinces (http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/EDB/1920/02/26/2/Ar00202.html: accessed 25 November 2020).