The 1918 Flu Pandemic in Canada

The Spanish Influenza of 1918 was a devastating crisis that immediately followed the end of the Great War. Soldiers leaving the front and all the destruction that ensued only came home to more conflict; the fight against a rampaging sickness that would engulf the World. This page focuses on the aspects of the pandemic that affected life here in Canada, from how the virus was able to spread throughout various provinces to various medical responses across the country.   

This section begins by discussing the impact that the 1918 Flu Pandemic had on domestic travel across Canada, particularly rail travel. In the early twentieth century, rail travel was a growing and popular means of moving across the country and the pandemic brought that to a grinding halt.

Image: Canadian Pacific Railroad transporting Troops and Canadian “Bluebirds”, 1918

Travel and the 1918 Pandemic

The Spanish Flu’s introduction into Canada can be traced back to the Steamships coming from Europe post WWI, whether travelling directly to Canadian ports or through American ports and up into Canada. This is most prominent in the case of Newfoundland, at the time an Island Dominion of the British Empire. During their second wave between the Fall of 1918 and the Summer of 1919, 901 deaths were caused by the Flu in which almost every district on the Island had a major outbreak. Some of the cases also lead to 278 pneumonia deaths. One of the greatest reasons for such a devastating second wave as told by medical professionals in Newfoundland was the lack of strict quarantining on ships. There were breakouts onboard two vessels during the Fall of 1918 in which they demanded medical attention. The patients were brought ashore and taken to hospital. The interaction between the ship’s crew and the medical professionals on land is said to have been that start of such a catastrophic second wave for Newfoundlanders, as they were able to come in close contact with the staff allowing for the new variant to take hold on the Island. Though measures had been taken in order to force ships to quarantine in port for a period of time before disembarking, this was compromised by medical professionals attempting to help the sick. It can be said that ships were an epicenter for virus transportation and led to the spread of the flu into parts of the Dominion of Canada and Newfoundland.  

Image: The Spanish influenza reached Newfoundland on 30 September 1918 when a steamer carrying infected crewmen docked at St. John’s Harbour.

Image: A notice in a Navy Yard reminding workers to not spit in order to stop the spread of the virus, 1918

During 1918, rail travel was a very important part of transportation services in Canada and one which people relied heavily upon. With the Transcontinental Railroad spanning across the country, it was a vital part of travel and shipping, but also a very vital resource during wartime. In the fall of 1918 as the Great War came to a close, Polish soldiers training in Niagara-on-the-Lake were sent to British Columbia by train. They were called to deploy on a mission to Siberia in the wake of the Russian Revolution, where Entente command were afraid of the result of the uprising in a post-war world. This mass transportation of troops was said to be a large contributing factor to the spread of flu in Ontario, inciting the first wave. Accounts of these soldiers at the end of the war brought to light the deterioration of health amongst the ranks, especially in unhealthy environments. Soldiers that were recruited in a healthy state became increasingly sick under the conditions of their training and travel, of which accounts say matches with the beginning of the Spanish Flu in Canada. By travelling on trains across the province, these soldiers had the ability to come into contact with a large number of people at various stops along the route, and even into other provinces enroute to British Columbia. Being forced to be in close quarters with other sick servicemen would have also proved detrimental to the spread of the flu even amongst the ranks. Therefore, rail travel not only allowed for the virus to spread across the country, but also infected large numbers of passengers in close contact with each other.  

The 1918 Flu in Town and Country

The 1918 flu affected all kinds of Canadian communities from large cities to small remote towns. It did not discriminate between those communities either.

A remote town that’s notable to mention would be Kenora, an isolated town with a population of 4700. For one to travel to Kenora, one would have to take the Canadian Pacific railway of by water, almost insuring the spread of flu. The second wave was the wave that reached Kenora. It infected and killed 66 residents, and thousands would infect the disease. Kenora was as small as can be but its population was so heavily affected, that they compare to any major city going through the same disease.

Next one to mention would be a city slightly greater in size to Kenora, Kingston. Kingston at the time had a population of 22 000 people, with an extremely high flu-related death rate. There are a variety of reasonings and assumptions on why Kingston would have such a high infection rate, some chalk it up to Kingston’s free medical care, that would require the sick to travel to Kingston. After the influenza ran its course Kingston totalled 145 deaths.

Lastly for cities, Toronto is honestly the most notable Canadian city, known worldwide, so how did the 1918 flu affect Toronto? The second wave of the Influenza would ultimately be the most lethal, killing 90 people in Toronto in one day.


HIST1P50 is grateful to Co-Operative Education and Work Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada for its support of this project. We are also indebted to our community partners, the St. Catharines and Welland Canal Museum, The Niagara Falls History Museum, the Lincoln Museum, and the Nelles Manor Museum. Thanks also to the Co-Op Office at Brock University.

All content created by the students of HIST1P50, "Co-Operative Historical Projects" at Brock University.

All images sourced from Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, and Defining Moments Canada.