This is a diary episode of what I am experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t mention worry, but it’s there, as is uncertainty. When I recorded this, I hadn’t checked recent stats but we actually now have 1,629 cases of COVID-19 in Quebec, with most of those in Montreal where I live. I’m trying to adopt a positive mindset, get enough sleep, eat well and build good habits. How are you coping?
As we go through the current pandemic, I wondered how my ancestors coped with similar pandemics. After all, including this one, Canadians have faced six flu pandemics since Confederation.1 Looking at their lives might help with what we’re dealing with now.
Turns out they faced much worse, particularly during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. No one in Canada knew to limit contact until most people saw someone die.
The Spanish Flu killed almost as many Canadians as World War I in a shorter time.
It took four years of war to kill 51,000 Canadian soldiers and nurses.2
In less than a year, during the fall of 1918 and the spring and summer of 1919, 50,000 people in Canada died of the flu. They included ny great great grandmother’s sister-in-law, Marie Amanda Gauthier Gourdinne.
Mrs. Gourdinne lived in a close-knit francophone community called Ouelletteville, near Cluny, Alberta. The village began when 32 families set up farms there in 1910.
A great many homesteaders from Ontario and Quebec joined them over the next decade, including my great grandmother Marie-Berthe (Martha) Charette, her two sisters, Ida and Eva, their husbands and their brother Ernest.
The three sisters probably heard stories about the 1890 Russian flu pandemic from their parents, especially since their little sister Dora was born that year.
Still, nothing could match living through the fear and then reality of someone you love suffering from the disease.
At the beginning of his comprehensive tome about the Spanish Flu in Canada, researcher Mark Osborne Humphries describes the death of an 18-year-old soldier named George William F.
It wasn’t pretty.
“[George William F.] fought his symptoms for two days as he drilled, marched and played sports in the chilly autumn rain. By the 29th [of September], he had grown considerably worse and was forced into a hospital. There his condition quickly deteriorated. Within a couple of days, his breathing grew shallow and more infrequent as his pulse quickened to 112 beats per minute. His temperature climbed above 103 degrees. Blood dripped from his nose. On 4 October, doctors noted that his lips, and earlobes were beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen. His once slight cough became ‘considerable,’ and he began to complain of chest pain. A mild flu was rapidly progressing into a severe case of pneumonia. Although his doctors still hoped for recovery, his temperature remained high. On the night of 16 October, almost three weeks after entering hospital, his breathing quickened still more, rising above fifty shallow breaths per minute. The young soldier was gasping for air but his lungs were incapable of absorbing oxygen. At five the following morning, Gunner George William F. died from complications of Spanish flu. There was little doctors could do but watch him perish.”3
The Spanish Flu got its name from the newspaper reports coming out of that country, which was one of the few places that didn’t censor news reports due to the war.
That fact initially led people to blame immigrants for the virus spread.
Historical research eventually found multiple trigger events in military bases.
One strain began with a flu outbreak at a military base in Haskell, Kansas, for example. Researchers traced the transmission through American military camps until Polish troops brought it to Niagara-on-the-Lake in October 1918. It then spread throughout Ontario during the fall of 1918 and from there to new recruits who carried it across the country as they travelled to British Columbia to leave for Russia.4
The Spanish Flu hit Ouellettesville, Alberta on its way west.
Everyone knew everyone else in the town, and they were family, so the three sisters knew the 51-year-old Mrs. Gourdinne. Her suffering and later death must have been a shock.
I have notes from my grandmother saying “1918 was a hard year for the Gourdinne family due to the flu epidemic. Beloved grandmama died.”
Still, the three sisters out west and their family members living near Ottawa all escaped harm.
In retrospect, we know that their little sister Dora, who turned 28 in 1918, made the luckiest escape.
A study conducted by researchers in 2013 showed unusually heavy Spanish flu mortality among 28-year-olds.
“We posit that in specific instances, development of immunological memory to an influenza virus strain in early life may lead to a dysregulated immune response to antigenically novel strains encountered in later life, thereby increasing the risk of death. Exposure during critical periods of development could also create holes in the T cell repertoire and impair fetal maturation in general, thereby increasing mortality from infectious diseases later in life.”5
That process may have contributed to all the sisters’ dying. None of them lived long beyond the next pandemic.
Ida died of cancer in 1922.
Martha and Dora were among 7,000 Canadians who succumbed to the Asian flu in 1957. My great grandmother Martha died in Edmonton on June 6. Her sister Dora died in Ottawa on October 23.
Eva moved back east to join her family in Ottawa. She survived the Asian flu to die a mere two years later.
The following pandemic, known as the Hong Kong flu, killed 4,000 Canadians, including my grandmother on my mother’s side. Agnes Maria Himphen died on October 13, 1968.
Luckily, no one I know died in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, although the outbreak killed 428 Canadians.
With all the research efforts underway across the country, I certainly hope that we’ll discover a vaccine for the current Covid-19 soon.
I’m praying that there won’t be any more deaths.
1Dickin, Janice, Patricia G. Bailey and Erin James-Abra. “Flu” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Published September 29, 2009; edited May 1, 2017. Accessed on March 24, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/influenza/.
2Spanish Flu information kit for students, Ontario Archives, http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/education/pdf/Spanish_Flu_in_Ontario_Lesson_Kit.pdf, accessed on March 24, 2020.
3Humphries, Mark Osborne. The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2013, p 3.
4Mitchell, Alanna. The outbreak and its aftermath, Canadian Geographic, August 23, 2018, https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/outbreak-and-its-aftermath, accessed March 25, 2020.
I’m currently reading Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman.
The story features Jewish men who served as spies for Israel in Haifa and Beirut in 1948 as part of the “Arab Section” conceived during the Second World War.
It reads like a spy novel. My favourite passage so far gives the mood.
“It might seem that events are flowing inevitably toward the history we’ve learned and the present that is familiar to us, but on the day Yussef appeared in Haifa in the middle of January 1948, nothing was inevitable, and no one knew anything yet. There was no state called Israel, nor did it seem likely there would be one.”
Most of the story features ninety days during the War of Independence, but the novel offers a fascinating look at the state of the world after World War II.
Friedman, who now lives in Jerusalem, grew up in Toronto and so understands the dual pull two countries can have on a single psyche. He’s also a former Israeli soldier, an active journalist, and a keen observer of media bias about Israel, which he outlined from his point of view in an opt-ed piece for the New York Times last January, and in a longer 2014 story for the Atlantic.
I appreciate his work because of comments he made after interviewing the parents of soldiers who died serving with him for a previous book.
“It’s one thing to relive my own experiences, but to inhabit the lives of soldiers was complicated. These aren’t fictional characters. These are real people of real families, people who remember them. I wanted to be respectful of their memory, while trying to describe them in an accurate or human fashion — not as angels, or perfect people, but as living, breathing, flawed humans with potential. I certainly sweated more over those sections then I did over the others. I showed the text to parents with some trepidation, but the response was, to my great relief, favourable. They were happy that someone remembered and that someone cared enough to write about their sons.”
This description mirrors my own experiences interviewing veterans of the Vietnam War.
To purchase this book, go to:
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission held hearings as part of a comprehensive review of mobile wireless services this week.
I was there to testify on behalf of SafeEMF, also known as EMF Off!
It did not go well.
Commissioners didn’t seem to understand why we want them to consider Canadian health as they regulate the operations of every telecommunications operator in the country. They seemed to think that someone else has that job.
I hope that they were just tired and hungry and that the final report will include measures to protect Canadian health after-all.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at their disinterest.
Chairperson Ian Scott set up expectations at the beginning of deliberations. In part, he said:
Our objective is to ensure that the regulatory framework enables sustainable competition that provides better prices and innovative services for Canadians, as well as continued investments in high-quality networks across Canada.
The current framework for wholesale mobile wireless services was established in 2015. It requires Bell Mobility, Rogers and Telus to provide wholesale roaming services to competitors at rates set by the CRTC. This regime was to remain in place for a minimum of five years to allow for competition to develop sustainably.
Since then, the CRTC has updated the Wireless Code, taken steps to make lower-cost data only plans widely available to Canadians and finalized wholesale roaming rates – all in an effort to empower consumers and ensure the marketplace continues to meet their needs. We also made access to mobile wireless voice and Internet services part of the universal service objective.
We want Canadians to have access to world-class mobile wireless services, in terms of coverage, quality and price.
Between 2016 and 2018, wireless service providers have invested more than $7 billion in their networks to expand their reach and improve the quality of their service. According to our latest data, 99% of the population has access to LTE coverage, and 95% has access to LTE-A technology. We want to ensure that network investment continues so that the quality and speeds of Canada’s wireless networks are among the best in the world.
In terms of price, there has been progress. Mobile wireless rates decreased by an average of 28% between 2016 and 2018. We remain concerned, however, that these price decreases may not be keeping pace with what is transpiring in other jurisdictions, and we want to see a broader range of affordable options for consumers.
Unfortunately, commissioners didn’t seem to understand why they should care about human health in their efforts to “regulate and supervise broadcasting and telecommunications in the public interest” as they say on their website.
Ian Scott made it clear that they want to approve the 5G roll out as quickly as possible, when he said:
Our goal is to ensure that Canadians have access to a world-class communications system.
After watching submissions and seeing the questions commissioners asked throughout the week, I got the impression that the CRTC cares too much about innovation and has the rest of the possible elements of public interest.
Commissioners seem to be looking for a way to drop prices without regulating, although one commissioner definitely seemed to care a lot about access as well.
Those of us concerned about access, health and privacy were definitely in the minority during this hearing.
This week, the third week of February 2020, I’d like to point out several examples of local journalism.
Two of my stories appeared in yesterday’s Suburban.
Two people are dead, 40 people are injured and Highway 15 remains closed after a 200 car accident south of Montreal yesterday, Global reports.
Parks Canada wants citizen comments about the future of the heritage canal in Ste Anne-de-Bellevue. An open house information session will take place Wednesday, Feb. 26, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the church hall located at 1 de l’Église St., in Ste-Anne village. An online consultation continues until March 1.
The first winter film night in the Verdun greenhouses took place last Saturday night. Two others follow this Saturday, February 22, and next Saturday, February 29 starting at 5 p.m.
Organizers worried that the cold and snow might hamper attendance, but our fears were unfounded. Almost 50 film-goers came to enjoy the cozy atmosphere. Many brought covers to bundle up in to watch the films, but others just wore their tuques and warm sweaters or coats.
I remember coming here all the time with my parents as a kid,” said neighourhood resident Eric. “It would be nice to have more events like this to get people together.”
The concept began as an experiment between Ciné-Verdun and Grand Potager, in partnership with CAUS (the non-profit coop that this journalist helps run), Mission Inclusion, Ciné-Vert (organized by SUCO and Funambules Médias), Festival de Films Alimenterre and L’inis.
The next evening in that series takes place on Saturday, February 29 with the Jo Barker Documentary from Britain “In Our Hands” (English version with subtitles) at 6 p.m. and Les Fleurs Oubliées, André Forcier’s “green fantasy” starring Roy Dupuis at 7:30 p.m. For more information, refer to https://linktr.ee/cineverdun.
Then, last Sunday, Groupe dE Mossi, who are producer members of CAUS, added a third Saturday film night to discuss the history of slavery and historic links between Quebec and Africa.
For both of the coming Saturdays, beverages and snacks are available for purchase from 5 p.m. Screenings start at dusk around 6 p.m.