Today’s Covid-19 pandemic is reminiscent of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Although most of us were not around then, we can learn through archival sources how the pandemic changed daily life for Albertans, and draw parallels between the approaches and responses from a century ago to today. This blog post will look at the 1918 outbreak in an Alberta context, and examine how the United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.), a provincial co-operative founded in 1909 to advocate on behalf of farmers, navigated this challenge.
The 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish Flu” saw over 3,000 Albertans die, public centres, such as schools and dance halls, closed down, and entire towns put under quarantine orders (Keer, 1994, p. 326-329). Alberta residents and visitors were not allowed to leave or enter quarantined towns and large public gatherings were banned (Adams, 2018). By late October, the province declared that all citizens were to wear a mask outside of their homes, with failure to do so resulting in up to a $50 fine (Keer, 1994, p. 327).
Rural towns were impacted province-wide. With increasing illnesses and isolation orders in effect, municipalities had to improvise with what they had. In Grande Prairie, the Immigration Hall became a temporary hospital with the local hotel owner filling in as the undertaker (Keller, 2020). The Canmore Hotel was converted to a temporary hospital and the old North-West Mounted Police barracks in Red Deer became an isolation centre for flu victims (Conboy, 2020; Dawe, 2020). The U.F.A. Queenstown Local, at Milo, pitched in as well and their new community hall became a hospital for flu patients in the area (The U.F.A., 1922, p. 5).
So how did the United Farmers of Alberta respond when faced with an unprecedented pandemic? Influenza touched all parts of the province, and the U.F.A. being a province-wide organization similarly experienced wide-spread effects. By 1918, the U.F.A. had been around for almost a decade, had grown upwards to 30,000 members, and were seen as a strong voice for farmers and rural communities as well as an advocate for improving public services.
Pages from a U.F.W.A. booklet, c. 1917-1919 (United Farmers Historical Society, U.F.W.A. Fonds 02.003, Series 6, File 5, 30-46).
Perhaps most significantly, the influenza outbreak highlighted the priorities of the U.F.A. and the United Farm Women of Alberta (U.F.W.A.) for cooperation and community. The flu outbreak showed the need for quality healthcare and for the U.F.W.A. in particular, reinforced their founding principle of advocating for improved health services in rural communities. As stated in the published booklet “Working Hints for Local Unions of the United Farm Women of Alberta” health was of “paramount importance” and recommended for U.F.W.A. locals to include in their programs discussion topics on municipal hospitals, rural sanitation, home nursing and first aid (U.F.W.A. Fonds 02.003, Series 6, File 5, 30-46).
The U.F.W.A. used their strength to lobby the government and persuade public opinion surrounding health matters. Health care importance was already ingrained in their priorities as an organization, and were even one of the first to press the government to create a provincial Department of Public Health (The U.F.A. 1922, p. 8). In 1919, Alberta did indeed establish a Department of Public Health, whereas prior to this, health issues fell under the Department of Agriculture (Gourlie, 2020).
While we don’t know the extent of U.F.A. or U.F.W.A members who passed from influenza during the pandemic, one notable person is mentioned in sources, highlighting a loss to the organization. Edwin Carswell, who originally settled in the Horn Hill district, took an active role in the farm organization movement becoming president of the newly organized Penhold branch of the Alberta Farmers’ Association, vice-president of the Alberta Farmers Co-operative Elevator Company (the precursor to the United Grain Growers), and held numerous positions within the U.F.A. and on associated committees until January 1918 (Danysk, 2003). Edwin was known as a “chief advocate for co-operative marketing of grain and livestock in Western Canada” who’s career abruptly ended from influenza February 6, 1919 (Tolton, 2009, p. 10, 46; Danysk, 2003).
Looking at the U.F.A. Annual Report from 1918, the topics that dominated the meeting were influenza, drought, and the recent armistice, showing that the pandemic was not the only hardship that the U.F.A. was managing at the time. Irene Parlby, founder of the United Farm Women of Alberta and rural health advocate, gave the following statements in her “Report of U.F.W.A. President to U.F.A.”:
“Rural Municipal Hospitals are gradually being built, but this epidemic of Spanish Influenza, with which we are still battling, has shown more clearly than ever the urgent need for some scheme which will bring more doctors and more nurses into the rural districts”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 11)
“…the State must engage its own body of doctors and nurses; it must provide them with adequate salaries and must build homes for them in places where they are most needed”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 11)
Parlby reinforced the position of the U.F.W.A. to support rural healthcare again in her “Report of the President of the U.F.W.A.” during the U.F.W.A. Annual Convention:
“The visitation of this plague has shown, I think, in sufficiently tragic manner the total inadequacy of medical and nursing aid in the rural districts”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 76)
“…demand a State system of medical and nursing aid, which will give the State a mobilised force of the most highly trained men and women, filled with the enthusiasm for service, and guaranteed adequate remuneration for their service; a fighting force always ready to be sent at a moment’s notice to any point where they, may be needed; a force which would make the tragedies of these recurring epidemics impossible”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 76)
“…the Public fully appreciates the noble effort of doctors and nurses to save life during this epidemic, often at the cost of their own, but their numbers were too few for the enormous work they have had to face”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 76)
Parlby was clearly an adamant voice for more and better equipped doctors and nurses and for improved rural health services overall. She worked tirelessly with the U.F.W.A. and U.F.A. locals and representatives to bring these concerns, as well as suggestions for improvement forward in government.
The 1918 U.F.A. Annual Convention also carried resolutions aimed at putting pressure on the provincial government regarding improvements to a pandemic response in the future. This included requesting the establishment of centres where young women could acquire a first aid course of instruction in nursing under a graduate nurse or doctor and petitioning the government to enact a law for the appointment of an “Inspector to enforce quarantine regulations, disinfect premises and release cases of infectious diseases from quarantine” (U.F.A. Annual Report 1918, p. 64, 67). However, in the subsequent Annual Report for 1919, the U.F.W.A. noted that their suggestion for the first aid course to help rural women and girls cope with any unexpected epidemic that might come along in the future, was not carried out because the Minister of Health at the time thought there were too many obstacles preventing its implementation (U.F.A. Annual Report 1919, p. 83).
In 1920, Henry Wise Wood opened the U.F.A Annual Convention by stating the following in his U.F.A President’s Address:
“In no year since the beginning of our organization have more new problems appeared on this widening horizon, and in no year have current problems been dealt with more seriously and soberly. Out of this has come a development of citizenship unprecedented in the history of our movement”(U.F.A. Annual Report 1920, p. 5)
It is clear that the preceding few years had been trying for the organization as a whole. Dealing with a deadly pandemic almost immediately after the hardship of a years’ long war, on top of the regular challenges faced by farmers, all had a direct impact on the U.F.A. However their membership stayed strong and communities remained committed to the farmer’s movement, so much that the U.F.A. was practically forced to form the provincial government a short while later. The pandemic highlighted the foundation of the co-operative as one of community and public service, which came to be recognized throughout Alberta. The spirit of the U.F.A. is notably summed up by Irene Parlby who stated:
“The influenza epidemic, like the war, has taught us many things, the beauty of Social Service being one of them, and multitudes have quite forgotten self and freely given of their time and means, and many have given their lives as well for others(U.F.A. Annual Report 1919, p. 90)
The influenza pandemic stretched from 1918 to 1920 and had a lasting impact on Alberta and the U.F.A. The following year in 1921, the U.F.A. Political Party formed the provincial government and the aftermath of the pandemic, along with pressure from the U.F.A. and U.F.W.A, certainly had an influence on policies surrounding public health matters. In the 1921 Annual Report, the U.F.W.A. urged that a resolution be passed at the U.F.A. Convention to press the legislature for a law recognizing and legalizing chiropractic services and the establishment of a board of examiners to license chiropractors in Alberta (U.F.A. Annual Report 1921, p. 157). In issues of The U.F.A., a membership publication published by the United Farmers of Alberta, you can find numerous ads touting the benefits of chiropractic care in alleviating influenza.
The U.F.W.A maintained their strong position for health care advocacy. They disseminated literature from The Provincial Board of Health to its members, raised health related topics for discussion within their locals, and brought forward recommendations to the U.F.A. to then press the provincial government on. In 1927, the organization put forth a quarantine regulation, requesting that “cases of contagious disease be subject to an absolutely tight quarantine” (The U.F.A, 1927, p. 8). The response from The Provincial Board of Health was that children’s diseases, such as measles and chickenpox, would be quarantined to prevent wider spread, thus limiting the chances of an epidemic (The U.F.A, 1927, p. 8).
In contrast, how is the U.F.A. managing today? Technology means that administrative work and meetings can carry on virtually, while Farm and Ranch Supply stores, Petroleum Agencies and Cardlocks have stayed open to serve their communities. The U.F.A. now has approximately 120,000 member-owners, and has come a long way from a local co-operative established to the now extensive commercial and retail operation (United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative Ltd). There are similarities in approaches and responses that can be seen between 1918 and the present, but with a century apart, the values of service and community are still paramount. The pandemic of 1918 and now highlights a tradition of resilience that is still seen in the organization today.
Written by Erin Hoar, UFHS Archivist
References and Further Resources:
Adams, S. (2018). War and the Spanish Flu. In Legion Magazine. Retrieved from https://legionmagazine.com/en/2018/09/war-and-the-spanish-flu/
Conboy, M. (2020). Historical – Canmore wasn’t immune to the Spanish Flu. In The Bow Valley Crag & Canyon. Retrieved from https://www.thecragandcanyon.ca/news/local-news/historical-canmore-wasnt-immune-to-the-spanish-flu
Danysk, C. (2003). “Carswell, Edwin,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval. Retrieved from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carswell_edwin_14E.html
Dawe, M. (2020). Spanish flu struck Red Deer hard more than a century ago. In Red Deer Advocate. Retrieved from https://www.reddeeradvocate.com/opinion/michael-dawe-spanish-flu-struck-red-deer-hard-more-than-a-century-ago/
Galt Museum & Archives. (2018). In Pandemic at Home: The 1918–1919 Flu. Retrieved from https://www.galtmuseum.com/exhibit/pandemic-at-home
Gourlie, M. (2020). International Archives Week: Plotting the course of the pandemic. Retrieved from https://albertashistoricplaces.com/2020/06/10/international-archives-week-plotting-the-course-of-the-pandemic/
Keer, Stephani. (1994). “In six hideous months the flu kills almost as many as the war.” In Alberta in the 20th Century: The Great War and its Consequences 1914-1920. Edmonton: United Western Communication Ltd., pp. 326 – 341.
Keller, E. (2020). Local historian sees parallels between current COVID-19 situation and past pandemics. In Everything GP. Retrieved from https://everythinggp.com/2020/03/26/local-historian-sees-parallels-between-current-covid-19-situation-and-past-pandemics/
The U.F.A., Vol. 1, no. 10 (July 15, 1922). The United Farmers of Alberta. Retrieved from https://archives.ufa.com/permalink/theufav1n10ufoa-5
The U.F.A., Vol. 1, no. 13 (Sep. 1, 1922). The United Farmers of Alberta. Retrieved from https://archives.ufa.com/permalink/theufav1n13ufoa-8
The U.F.A., Vol. 6, no. 20 (Aug. 15, 1927). The United Farmers of Alberta. Retrieved from https://archives.ufa.com/permalink/theufav6n20ufoa-28
Tolton, G. (2009). Deep Roots. Promising Future. Calgary: UFA. Retrieved from https://archives.ufa.com/viewer/deep-roots-promising-future?p=12&type=static
U.F.W.A. Fonds 02.003. In Custody of the United Farmers Historical Society.
United Farmers of Alberta. (1922). U.F.A. Annual Report 1919-1921. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/ufaannualreport1921ufoa/page/n3/mode/2up
United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative Ltd.. (n.d.). “Who We Are”. Retrieved from https://coop.ufa.com/who-we-are