What is Forgotten? Influenza’s Reverberations in Post-War Canada

This is the second in a four-part theme week focused on the Spanish Flu and the newly launched Defining Moments Canada project.

By Esyllt Jones

For all the times scholars of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic have referred to its “forgotten” aspect, in homage to Alfred Crosby’s 1989 title for the influential book that a decade earlier had been published as Epidemic and Peace (a name change suggestive of the changing tides of historical preoccupation), two or more recent decades of sustained interest in the pandemic have challenged and complicated the narrative of forgetting.

Staff at the main branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce during the Spanish flu epidemic in Calgary in 1918. (Glenbow Museum. Period photo NA-964-22)

As research on the disease in Canada has demonstrated for some time, influenza’s survivors did not forget the disease. Historians may have for a time. National narratives neglected and elided it. But for so many families and communities, influenza lingered in the life histories and memories of mothers, lovers, grandmothers, brothers, and fathers of flu victims. This was the reality of a disease so widespread and so lethal. Remembrance occurred not through public symbolism or because of fear of further outbreaks, but because influenza was woven into lives.

We have the evidence to gain meaningful insight into the significance of influenza upon livelihoods, childhood, family formations, emotional life, patterns of grief and mourning, and private remembrance. When we shift our gaze away from ‘public’ or ‘national’ memory – the stuff of commemoration – towards the experiences of individuals and families over time, our parameters for studying the disease must necessarily expand.

The cultural turn in influenza’s histories, including extensive multidisciplinary work on modes of remembrance and the factors shaping the pandemic’s shadowy public presence, has provided historians with an interpretive opportunity to reconcile the dominant mode of analysis in epidemic history — what Charles Rosenberg called the “dramaturgic form” — with our current search to understand experiences and remembrances beyond the epidemic moment.

Writing in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Rosenberg insisted that an epidemic be understood as episodic. “A true epidemic is an event, not a trend,” he noted. The epidemic as event, as I have written elsewhere, is a useful standpoint. It evokes a sense of the unreality and societal crises caused or exposed by epidemic outbreaks. A severe epidemic disease event suspends the social order, however fleetingly. It is both a trauma and an opportunity for social transformation. In 1918-1919 influenza was, as Maureen Lux put it so eloquently in her 1997 article on Saskatchewan, the “midwife” for labour unrest.[1]

The dramaturgic form of epidemic histories invokes resolution and the sense of an ending. But this can create more problems than it solves. Memory and meaning in influenza’s histories is, after all, about what happens after, about survivors and their responses to the devastation through which they lived. A longer view of influenza’s impact — one which follows it into the years after 1918 — leads away from capturing the influenza pandemic as a snapshot in time, towards fully situating influenza in the post-World War I world it helped to make.

This project of integration is still far from complete.

Canadian historian Mary-Ellen Kelm, whose research has addressed both Indigenous and settler experiences during the flu pandemic, argues that those who lived through the disease outbreak often viewed their experiences in a very different fashion than the pandemic dramaturgy presented in the press, and by public health officials. Rather than the impact of a pandemic neatly confined temporally by a beginning, middle and end, and managed and contained by the actions of the modern state, some influenza survivors carried with them different sorts of memories about survival, and loss. Comparing what we might consider as ‘public’ and ‘private’ histories, Kelm’s flu stories tell a multitude of tales, some of them competing, and they pose a challenge to any argument regarding a unified influenza narrative.[2]

The notion that influenza impacted everyone equally, and was no respecter of class, race, or gender, has been rejected by a number of historians of the disease in Canada, including myself. Like so many other of history’s most catastrophic epidemics, influenza was the child of war and inequality. Herring and Korol, writing on Hamilton, Ontario, concluded “mortality from the 1918 pandemic was influenced by social inequality [and] was not socially neutral.”[3]

The rising cost of living and the loss of male wages during World War I had left many vulnerable to poverty. In the wake of the pandemic, the longer-term consequences of the disease could be severe for working families. Influenza widows and widowers struggled economically and socially after the pandemic to keep their families together. Despite the resilience demonstrated by many survivors, it changed the lives and material circumstances of thousands of Canadians. Memories of childhood survivors tell us that influenza was not a minor footnote. Despite the virtual absence of any public memory for much of the 20th century, private and familial remembrance was a different matter.

Indigenous peoples experienced the highest influenza mortality rates in the country. They also had an ambivalent relationship to medical modernity and the Canadian state as a result of the spread of infectious diseases historically through processes of colonialism; and the inadequate provision and segregated care that characterized the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet, it is here among the most marginalized of flu’s victims that influenza occupies a firmer footing in historical memory. In Indigenous tellings, influenza lays in continuity with previous experiences with infectious diseases such as smallpox, brought by European colonialism and contact with the settler world. As Kelm has argued, “just as smallpox seemed to reveal the danger of contact with Europeans in the early history of British Columbia, so, too, did influenza show that disease could still devastate no matter how ‘modernized’ Aboriginal people had become.”[4]

Influenza’s differential impact has important consequences for processes of memory and meaning to which historians must attend. As generations of social historians have argued, historical memory favours social elites. The voices of the majority are neglected voices. Understanding the experiences of ‘ordinary’ women and men, of immigrants, of racialized minorities, of the colonized: this is the project of social histories of influenza.

Looking closely, flu stories from both working class and Indigenous communities in Canada echo literary scholar Elizabeth Outka’s recent claim that “flu survivors, when questioned, declared over and over that they had never forgotten the flu’s devastation. Silence on the pandemic stems instead from other sources” including history and literature.[5] Here, too, there remains a lot of work to do.

The digital history project mounted by DefiningMomentsCanada.ca, which will collect influenza “microhistories” from across the country and provide a platform for teaching and sharing flu stories, offers a venue for reconciling memories held privately in families, or through oral traditions, with influenza’s public face. It is an invitation to a public conversation about influenza’s ostensibly forgotten aspect. I look forward to seeing what emerges.

Esyllt Jones is the Dean of Studies at St. John College at the University of Manitoba.


[1] Maureen Lux, “’The Bitter Flats: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Saskatchewan,” Saskatchewan History 49, 1 (Spring 1997): 11.

[2] Mary Ellen Kelm, “Flu Stories: Engaging with Disease, Death and Modernity in British Columbia, 1918-1919,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones, eds., Epidemic Encounters: New Interpretations of Pandemic Influenza in Canada, 1918-1920 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012): 167-192.

[3] D. Ann Herring and Ellen Korol, “The North-South Divide: Social Inequality and Mortality from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Hamilton, Ontario,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones, eds., Epidemic Encounters: New Interpretations of Pandemic Influenza in Canada, 1918-1920 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012): 107.

[4] Mary Ellen Kelm, “First Nations and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” BC Studies 122 (Summer 1999): 26

[5] Elizabeth Outka, “’Wood for the Coffins Ran Out’: Modernism and the Shadowed Afterlife of the Influenza Pandemic,” Modernism/modernity 21,4 (November 2014): 943.

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