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:
Recently, as I read the history of the WWII era on the webpage of the Cambridge Gliding Centre, which operates out of the Gransden Lodge Airfield, I was reminded of my great uncle’s fun-loving spirit. The page read:
“Despite the grim business of the war being waged, there was also a lighter side to life at Gransden Lodge, with many sporting events, parties, concerts and film shows being organised, along with the inevitable pranks carried out by the boisterous Canadians.”1
I don’t know what pranks they were talking about, but its likely my uncle Charlie fell among the pranksters. He served at Gransden Lodge for six months in 1944.
Uncle Charlie, officially known as Sgt. John Charles Mathieu, worked three different jobs from the time he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on January 8, 1940 until he went missing just before Christmas 1944.
Each job got closer to the action, with the first assisting officers, the second serving as a Spitfire flight mechanic and the third as a tail gunner in a Lancaster.
In many ways, his personal development matched the development of Canada’s Air Force.
Canada founded its own Air Force in 1920, just after World War I ended. King George V gave it the Royal Canadian Air Force title four years after that. For a while, it controlled civil aviation in the country, but that ended in 1927. It then re-established recruitment and training in 1939, as part of the build-up to the British effort in World War II.
The Royal Canadian Air Force created Squadron 405 in Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941. It became operational as part of Britain’s Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command a month and a half later.2
Canadian and British crews tried to hit German and French targets individually as best they could, but the bombs dispersed too widely.
Captain D. C. Bennett came up with a plan to send a small group of bombers ahead of the others. These Pathfinder bombers would drop green and red short-burning flares called “sky indicators” on targets so that a bigger group of bombers would know where to aim.
Just as this new strategy was developed, the Royal Canadian Air Force created its own Bomber Command. It assigned the 405 Squadron to the pathfinder role and moved it to Gransden Lodge. The squadrons originally based there researched the use of radar. As the use of that technology expanded, they had to be moved to larger, more secretive locations.
Meanwhile, Charlie began training as a tail gunner just before Christmas 1943. His two-and-a-half month journey ended with a mark of 76.1%. I think this is a pretty good grade, but his course instructor P.W.H. Walker clearly expected better. Walker wrote in Mathieu’s log book that he was “a pupil who would have done better had he devoted more time to his work.”3
He worked harder after that, training from March until May in a Wellington in Wellesbourne Mountford and then from the 9th until the 24th of June in a Halifax. For that last training session, his instructor gave him a mark of 91% and assessed him as “average.”
Then it was off to the Navigational Training Unit, which used the new safer, faster bombers known as Lancasters. The Lancasters also marked a vast improvement in technology. After successfully prototyping by the A.V. Roe Company in Chadderton, the manufacture of some Lancasters moved to Canada. Charlie told me that plane saved him and his crew multiple times.
Charlie’s study habits by then had vastly improved; he and his rear gunner came in second and third in the class. Together, they got assigned to the elite squadron 405, something that shocked Charlie.
The rest of the crews were all experienced, some with two tours of ops to their credit; we didn’t even have one flight.4
Charlie arrived in Great Gransden, a tiny hamlet in Sandy, which was part of Bedfordshire in Huntingdonshire County, 11 miles west of Cambridge in early July 1944. He got a welcoming pamphlet from his predecessors that said in part:
“We old die-hards, some of whom you will have the pleasure of meeting later in this booklet, began our P.F.F. life just as you are, with few clues but a willingness to learn. We settled down and soon became enshrouded with the spirit, that we not only had a job to do well, but one which was to be done far better than was expected, no matter how small it proved to be. That spirit and responsibility is handed down to you by the older crews as they end their tours.”5
Charlie’s log shows eleven-and-a-half hours of day flying and two-and-a-quarter hours of night flying over a three-day period that ended on July 10, 1944.6
That same day, Charlie got a new “class A” driver’s license that gave him the right to drive “heavy locomotive, light locomotive, motor tractor, heavy motor car, motor car, or motor tricycle equipped with means for reversing”7 for a year.
He wouldn’t need the last six months.
Read my other stories about WWII service at:
Last flight (this is more about Uncle Charlie)
Difficult holiday for two families (this story features the death of a crew member on Charlie’s last flight)
Sad death (this story features one of the women who served)
Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer (another story about a woman who served)
Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII (Charlie trained in Dunville, but the site was similar to this one)
1https://www.camgliding.uk/about/airfield-history/, accessed January 29, 2020.
2 Skaarup, H. (n.d.). Canadian Wings: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.canadianwings.com/Squadrons/squadronDetail.php?No.-405-Squadron-64.
3Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943, December 12, 1943 to February 26, 1944.
4Mathieu, John Charlie. All this Heaven Almost, private manuscript.
5 No. 405 Squadron Operational Books, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm reproduction copy number C-12272.
6Log book, Personal documents, John, Charles Mathieu, Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943.
7Huntingdonshire County Council Road Traffic Provisional Driving Licence No. A6430.
One-time Verdun resident Fred Christie took on racial injustice in Canada in 1936. The crusader is in the news again this week thanks to Jonathan Montpetit, from the CBC. Montpetit’s article features the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) campaign for wider recognition for Christie.
He chose to take the owner of the York Tavern to court after he refused to serve him.
Christie initially won $25, but he lost on appeal. The case took three years to get to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, Christie lost again.
The Supreme Court decision was rendered on December 9th, 1939 and published in 1940. It said in part:
the general principle of the law of Quebec is that of complete freedom of commerce.” Specifying further, the judgment states that “any merchant is free to deal as he may choose with any individual member of the public […] the only restriction to this general principle would be the existence of a specific law, or, in the carrying out of the principle, the adoption of a rule contrary to good morals or public order.”
After losing his case, Christie left Montreal.
His efforts initiated a series of events that eventually led to the 1975 Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
According to Kristian Gravenor in Coolopolis, Christie lived at 716 Galt.
The NFB included Christie in their Journey to Justice film. (The Christie segment begins at minute 9.46.)
On February 4, 2016, the borough of Verdun and the official committee for Black History Month in Montreal paid hommage to Mr. Christie and set up a page in his honour. That page has since been removed. The borough’s overview about that evening and an article in the Suburban both mention that event.
*Please note: a previous version of this post included a photo of activist Hugh Burnett instead of Christie. Apologies for this error.
Today, let’s remember Barbara-Maria Klucznik-Widajewicz.
Barbara and 13 other women died during the École Polytechnique Massacre on this date, December 6, 1989.
The 31-year-old nursing student got shot enjoying a cheap meal with her husband in the cafeteria. Newspapers ran a photo of her collapsed in her chair for days afterwards.
She and her husband had emigrated to Canada from Poland two years earlier looking for a safer life. A failed referendum left little room for solidarity activists like them.
Klucznik-Widajewicz spoke five languages and held degrees in engineering and economics when she arrived. She worked as a nanny and her husband worked overnight in a nursing home before they had enough to go back to school.
While he studied to be a psychiatrist, she studied nursing.
The Berlin wall came down a month before she died. The cold war ended. Europe was safe again. Would they go home?
We’ll never know where their dreams might have led. They died with her on December 6, 1989.
Her husband Witold Widajewicz spoke of his shock examining her body to a Gazette newspaper reporter a year after her death.
I opened the zipper and I found a hole in the left breast, the breast that I had kissed that day — one hole that finished everything, the American dream in this country,” said Widajewicz, then 30 years old.
We all empathized with his plight. Many of us remembered the photo of her slumped in her chair. The multiple bodies on stretchers rolled out of the school. All of it so horrific.
Poland repatriated Barbara’s body after she died. Her husband and all of Canada faced an enormous loss.
Too often, stories talk about the gunman, giving him a notoriety he doesn’t deserve. I’d much rather commemorate Barbara and her contribution. She’s the one who deserves to be famous and remembered.
Or, if we must say a man’s name today, why not weep for then engineering student, Sarto Blais? Sarto was at the Polytechnique that fateful day, but was unable to stop the shooter. The graduate killed himself in remorse in August 1990. His parents killed themselves ten months after their only son’s suicide. He and his parents deserve to be remembered too. We need to combat the mental illness that stems from trauma like the massacre.
Montreal, Quebec and Canada lost too many wonderful people 30 years ago today. On this, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let’s remember them.
In addition to Barbara, Sarto and the Blais, we also remember:
Geneviève Bergeron was a twenty-one year old second-year scholarship student in mechanical engineering that year. She sang in a choir, played the clarinet and loved swimming, gymnastics and playing basketball. Then Mayor Jean Doré knew her as the eldest daughter of Thérèse Daviau, who then served as city councilor for the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. As a teenager, Bergeron went door-to-door in 1984 to help Doré win his first election. She also babysat Doré’s 3-year-old daughter.
Her sister spoke to CBC radio reporter Laura Marchand for an article published today.
She was my hero,” Bergeron said, smiling. “I remember her as a sunshine. That’s what we used to call her: our Sunshine.”
Catherine had an article in Le Devoir in 2005 that you can still read today.
Elaine Audet, whose daughter attended FACE with Geneviève also wrote a letter about her.
Finding information about what she believed in is difficult. All I could find is references to three job offers she was considering at the time, including one near Toronto, and her desire to do a masters degree. There’s also a brief statement about her energy from her father Clarence in a book about the events.
That’s all the more reason to miss her now. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she lived.
Her brother Claude Colgan, spoke about her in French on a video.
If you prefer to commemorate today looking at the future instead of the past, join Mary Wells in celebrating 30 successful women in the engineering field who graduated within three years of that time.
Wells graduated from McGill as an engineer two years prior to the Massacre.
Her tribute page “30 years later” gives us just a small sense of what Canada lost when so many women engineer students–and one nursing student and trained engineer–died.