REGINA -- A little more than 100 years ago, the relatively new Canadian province of Saskatchewan was dealing with a pandemic. The Spanish Influenza was initially detected in Canada in 1918 and the impacts of that pandemic rippled through Saskatchewan communities for the following two years.

When soldiers returned to Canada from Europe in 1918, they brought the Spanish Influenza with them. The virus first arrived in Regina as soldiers were travelling home on trains coming from the East.

The Spanish Flu devastated the province, killing around 5,000 residents.

"This particular epidemic was quite bad because it was the death toll from it, the odds of surviving were quite a bit lower than what we see it with COVID," said Jeremy Mohr, the manager of reference and outreach services at the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. "It was also affecting a younger population. The very young were reasonably fine and the very old are usually fine too. But it was the population in their 20s to kind of the 40 range that actually passed away in far more significant numbers than we see with COVID."

The Spanish Flu saw a large spike in cases in October and November of 1918.

Erin Matthews, a history grad student at the University of Saskatchewan said many people took the pandemic seriously, but only until the war ended.

"After Armistice Day, essentially you had a lot of relaxation of regulations, people going and coming into the street and celebrating," Matthews said. “Then you had flare-ups of Spanish Influenza."

The second wave started in November 1919 and continued until May 1920.

Similar to COVID-19, schools and businesses closed, there were bans on gatherings and fines were issued when rules weren't followed. 


Dr. Gordon Asmundson is a professor of psychology at the University of Regina and a researcher for the Psychology of Pandemics Network.

He has been researching emotional responses since the COVID-19 pandemic started. One similarity Asmundson has found between COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu was a resistance to wearing masks in North America.

Asmundson hasn't found any evidence to suggest Saskatchewan had a large amount of resistance to mask-wearing during the Spanish Influenza, but he also said that doesn't mean resistance wasn't present.

In 1918, masks were homemade and made of thick layers of gauze. Diaries and stories from this era show that people complained about the masks being uncomfortable.

"During the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Influenza, people weren't very compliant with wearing masks, they felt they were a nuisance or they were uncomfortable," Matthews said. "You do see a lot of the similar responses to mask-wearing [today].” 


Matthews is focusing her research on the public health response to the Spanish Influenza pandemic in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. Over the next two years, she will be researching the public health measures that were implemented during the pandemic and how people followed those measures.

"In response to Spanish Influenza, there was a need for a federal surveillance system for new and emerging diseases," Matthews said. "There was a need to change the way that we delivered health care on the prairies."

In 1918, many First Nations and communities in rural Saskatchewan were greatly impacted by influenza compared to urban centres. Matthews said the rural areas saw large devastation because of how the communities relied on one another due to the lack of adequate health care in the area.

"It turns out that rural communities are also really interconnected and really tightly knit," Matthew said. "Then the isolation factor has homesteaders on their own trying to fend off Spanish Flu. Sick without any access to health care in their communities."

Spanish Influenza

Saskatchewan suffered two waves of the Spanish Influenza. The diagram shows the documented cases of the virus in Saskatchewan. (Cally Stephanow / CTV News)

Matthew said, similarly to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Northern First Nations suffered many cases of Spanish Influenza.

"They didn't have a lot of access to health care," she said. "They were also battling a lot of other infectious diseases at the time. There [was] smallpox and tuberculosis. So you have these communities that were hit way harder than a lot of the urban centers."

The Spanish Influenza brought attention to the need for better health care in rural areas of Saskatchewan and to many rural residents advocating for better health care. Mohr said it's because of this unrest that the government created a rural doctor program which resulted in rural doctors getting paid more money.

One difference between the Spanish Flu and the COVID-19 pandemic was privacy. In 1918, when a home was quarantining because family members were infected with the virus, public health would put a place card on the front door of the house to inform neighbours.


The origin of the 1918 H1N1 virus is disputed, but Spain has been ruled out entirely. 

The virus was named the Spanish Influenza because Spain was the first country to report cases of the virus. Spain's decision to report cases of influenza, when other European countries were not reporting, is related to its neutrality in World War I. 

"You had a lot of countries that weren't going to report about populations getting sick because no country wanted to show any weakness," Matthews said. "Spain was neutral so it actually reported these cases of severe influenza. People started to call it the Spanish Flu because Spain was the only one talking about it at the time."


The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan's collection of the Spanish Influenza contains many documents telling the stories of people who survived the virus.

Mohr said some of the stories are really hard to read because of the devastation during this time.

"[There are] also really tragic stories of a son or a daughter having to dig the graves for the rest of their family or an entire family being wiped out on their homestead," Mohr said. 

Matthews said the flu was additionally devastating because the greatest death toll was people between the ages of 20 and 40.

"The Spanish Flu was devastating because it wiped out generations," Matthews said. "You had families getting sick, you have parents dying and then you have children alone and they didn't have anybody to care for them. You would have whole families that were just wiped out from the Spanish Flu so it was really really tough it's devastating, especially in those rural areas where there was no one to help."


Asmundson said the Spanish Flu pandemic saw shortages in stores but in 1918, people were concerned about securing antiseptics and medicine.

"The indications and that the information shared in newspapers was that the virus attacked air passages," Asmundson said. " Vicks Vapor was flying off the shelves and actually couldn't be found, much like toilet paper in the early phases of this pandemic."

Many people sought natural remedies such as lemon, baking soda and alcohol during the 1918 pandemic. There was even a period during the Spanish Flu when Prohibition was briefly lifted because some thought alcohol could prevent infection.


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology especially for receiving communication and staying in touch with others.

During the Spanish Flu, people received their information about the pandemic from the local newspaper.

"It was sort of rough off a press and it took time," Asmundson said "Maybe posters were around so you had to be out and about to get them or word of mouth."

Asmundson said because in the twenty-first century we can receive news instantaneously, it's led to more fake news in this pandemic than during the Spanish Flu.

"There's so much erroneous information about the current pandemic that's just available and at people's fingertips," he said. "It's hard for people to know what's a reliable source and what isn't. Sometimes people will just latch on to something that they've read not understanding that it might be erroneous or misleading."