Learning from Past Pandemics: Resources on the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Canada

By Sean Carleton, Andrea Eidinger, Carolyn Podruchny. This is an Active History/Unwritten Histories Collaboration.

We are living in unprecedented times, or so we are being told by many commentators, health experts, and politicians these days.

Just last week, Dictionary.com released a list of “The Best Words to Use During Unprecedented Times” to help people describe their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis. The first word was “unprecedented.” The website explained, “If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ll have seen this word used quite a lot. Instead of defaulting to “I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ say ‘This is completely unprecedented.’”

Though the world has never seen a coronavirus pandemic quite like we are currently witnessing, that does not mean that what we are experiencing is “completely unprecedented.”

COVID-19, as a global pandemic, is extraordinary but it is not unparalleled. Indeed, we can learn how to respond to the current crisis, in part, by studying how people responded to past pandemics, including the influenza epidemic that spread around the globe in 1918–1919. That pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people globally; in Canada, the influenza epidemic claimed 55,000 lives.

Poster issued by the Provincial Board of Health about the influenza epidemic, Alberta. Glenbow Archives, NA-4548-5.

Drawing inspiration from a list of sources on the history of epidemics (that ignored Canadian scholarship) recently posted by the Society for the Social History of Medicine, we have compiled the following resource guide to direct people to available sources (a mix of popular and scholarly materials) on the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Canada. It has historically been known as the “Spanish Flu” pandemic, but this terminology is now considered outdated and unhelpful as there is no evidence that this pandemic originated in Spain. Thank you to Maureen Atkinson, Merle Massie McGowan, Carla Peck, and Adele Perry for this clarification.

What appears below is not an exhaustive list, so please add suggestions in the comments below and we will add them to the list.

We are grateful to the following contributors, who provided such wonderful suggestions: Katrina Ackerman, Maureen Atkinson, Kate Barker, Tarah Brookfield, Samantha Cutrara, Peter Gossage, Martin Hubley, Anne Marie Lane Jonah, Merle Massie McGowan, Erin Morton, Sasha Mullally, Neil Orford, Carla Peck, Adele Perry, Mary-Ann Shantz, Deb Trask, Christina Wakefield.

Blog Posts

Kate Barker, “Killer Advertising – How Canadians were Sold the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic,” Borealia, March 23, 2020.

Hallie Brodie, “Weathering an Epidemic: A Look at the U of A During the Spanish Flu,” The Quad, November 29, 2018.

Marcelle Cinq-Mars, “1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic,” Library and Archives Canada Blog, November 29, 2018.

Mike Clare, “Commemorating the Forgotten Plague Through the Classroom,” Active History, January 31, 2018.

Ruth Craig, “Why Did the 1918 Flu Kill So Many Otherwise Healthy Young Adults?The Conversation, November 9, 2017.

Véronique Dupuis, “La Grande Guerre de Blanche-Olive Lavallée: le travail des infirmières dans les hôpitaux militaires canadiens au temps de la grippe espagnole,” Histoire Engagée, March 18, 2019.

Andrea Eidinger, “A Guide to Online Resources for Teaching and Learning about WWI in Canada,” Unwritten Histories, November 1, 2016.

Jane Jenkins, “Cures, Clothes, and Comfort: Profiting from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” Acadiensis, April 13, 2020.

Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, “What Difference Does a Century Make? Pandemic Responses to Influenza and COVID-19,” NiCHE, April 1, 2020.

Esyllt W. Jones, “The Distance Between Us: The Implications of Pandemic Influenza in 1918-1919,” Active History, March 14, 2020.

Esyllt W. Jones. “What is Forgotten? Influenza’s Reverberations in Post-War Canada,” Active History, January 30, 2018.

Catherine Lavoie and Karen Bilodeau, “Les registres de l’État civil : le cas de la grippe espagnole de 1918,” Instantanés, July 31, 2019.

Laura Madokoro, “Coronavirus: Racism and the Long-Term Impacts of Emergency Measures in Canada,” The Conversation, March 22, 2020.

Merle Massie, “1918 Flu in Biggar,” March 18, 2020.

Jenna Murdock Smith and Alexandra Haggert, “Spanish Flu Pandemic Centenary: New Co-Lab Challenge and a Travelling Exhibit,” Library and Archives Canada Blog, September 12, 2018.

Neil Orford, “Going Viral: Spreading the 100th Anniversary of the Spanish Flu Pandemic One Story at a Time,” Active History, January 29, 2018.

Ellen Scheinberg, “Piecing Together a Pandemic: Unearthing Elusive, Eclectic, and Authenic Stories of the Flu,” Active History, February 1, 2018.

Bill Waiser, “History Matters: 1918 Spanish Flu led to Saskatchewan’s first female MLA,” Saskatoon StarPheonix, November 22, 2016.

Kathryn Whitfield, “The Spanish Flu: Honouring Canada’s Lost Voices Through Digital Storytelling,” Ingenium Channel, June 10, 2019.


Turning Points of History: Kiss of the Spanish Lady.

History Education/Lesson Plans/Activities

Samantha Cutrara, “Imagining a New ‘We’ – Spanish Flu” series.

-Samantha Cutrara in conversation with historians about teaching history during the pandemic.

“Don’t Worry, Keep Your Feet Warm – The Spanish Flu in Ontario,” Archives of Ontario .

Thinking Historically about Pandemics, Seven Oaks School Division, Winnipeg.

Thomas Peace, “Bringing the Flu Into the Classroom,” Active History, March 16, 2020. .

Online Exhibits

The Spanish Flu (Defining Moments)
-This website includes basic information on pandemics, stories from the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, a story map examining how different communities in Canada experienced the pandemic, an artifact gallery, and lesson plans.

Remembering the Forgotten Dead: Nova Scotia and the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920
-This website contains informative essays, primary sources, as well as teaching resources.


An Indigenous Historian’s Take on COVID-19 – Episode 202”.

-Rick Harp in conversation with Mary Jane McCallum.

Nature’s Past – Episode 20: The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Winnipeg.”

-Sean Kheraj in conversation with Esyllt W. Jones.

Selected Online Primary Sources Collections

1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic – Newspapers.com

-International, but includes articles and clippings about the pandemic in Canada.

The Spanish Flu in Saskatchewan – Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (disponible on Français)

-Newspapers, newspaper ads, government records, local histories, and archival collections related to the pandemic in Saskatchewan.

The History of Spanish Influenza in Halifax – Halifax Public Libraries

-Some newspapers documenting the experiences of Haligonians during the pandemic.

Thematic Guides – Spanish Flu Epidemic (Library and Archives Canada)

-Mostly lists archival collections of interest for researchers on the pandemic, but we thought it was important to include this anyways.

Selected Secondary Sources

Marble Allen, “‘Halifax was plunged into Gloom’: The Impact of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic on Nova Scotia,Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society  22 (2019): 8–31.

Joan Champ, “The Impact of the Spanish Influenza on Saskstchewan Farm Families,” Prepared for Saskatchewan Western Development Exhibit, “Winning the Prairie Gamble,” 2005, January 13, 2003.

Magda Fahrni, “‘Elles sont partout…’: Les femmes et la ville en temps d’épidémie, Montréal, 1918-1920.” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 58:1 (Summer 2004): 67–85.

Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, eds., Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918–1920 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).

Mark Humphries. The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Jane E. Jenkins, “Baptism of Fire: New Brunswick’s Public Health Movement and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 24:2 (Fall 2007): 317–342.

Esyllt W. Jones  “‘Co-operation in All Human Endeavour’: Quarantine and Immigrant Disease Vectors in the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in Winnipeg.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 22: 1 (2005): 57–82.

Esyllt W. Jones, “Contact Across a Diseased Boundary: Urban Space and Social Interaction During Winnipeg’s Influenza Epidemic, 1918–1919.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 13: 1 (2002): 119–139.

Esyllt W. Jones, “Politicizing the Labouring Body: Working Families, Death and Burial in Winnipeg’s Influenza Epidemic, 1918–1919,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas 3, no. 2 (2006): 57–76.

Esyllt W. Jones, Influenza 1918: Disease Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

Mary Ellen Kelm, “British Columbia First Nations and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19,” BC Studies 122 (Summer 1999): 23–48.

Janice Kickin, “Pale Horse/Pale History? Revisiting Calgary’s Experience of the Spanish Influenza, 1918–19,” in Harm’s Way: Disasters in Western Canada, ed., Anthony Rasporich and Max Foran (Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 2004), 41–68.

Maureen Lux, “‘The Bitter Flats’: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Saskatchewan,” Saskatchewan History, 49: 1 (1997): 3–13.

Heather MacDougall, “Toronto’s Health Department in Action: Influenza in 1918 and SARS in 2003,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62, no. 1 (2007): 56-89.

Craig T. Palmer, Lisa Sattenspiel, and Chris Cassidy, “Boats, Trains, and Immunity: The Spread of the Spanish Flu on the Island of Newfoundland,” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 22: 2 (2007). https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/download/10120/10397

Naill Philip Alan Sean Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76: 1 (February 2002): 105–115.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

3 thoughts on “Learning from Past Pandemics: Resources on the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Canada

  1. Carol Williams

    thank you for this outstanding comprehensive list of resources. The Centre for Oral History and Tradition at UofL last year hosted a transatlantic conversation on the 1918 flu pandemic between invited scholars Esyllt Jones (UManitoba) and Ida Milne (Carlow College UK). I realize your primary focus is on Canadian resources but I also highly recommend Milne’s work esp. her use of oral histories.

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