The COVID-19 pandemic has brought some significant changes to how parliaments in Canada, and around the world, operate – particularly as they employ new technologies to increase parliamentarians’ ability to work and meet virtually. In the face of a similar pandemic about 100 years ago, these technologies didn’t exist or were in their infancy. In this article, the author explores how Canada’s provincial legislatures and federal parliament responded to the 1918-1919 Influenza and finds that many simply didn’t meet during the pandemic’s peak (or bizarrely held buffets immediately afterwards).
For all the talk of “unprecedented times,” it can sometimes be easy to forget that Canada has been through pandemics before. The 1918-19 Influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu outbreak – a misnomer as the illness did not originate in Spain) devastated Canada – claiming around 50,000 Canadian lives and infecting thousands more, around 1 in 4 Canadians.1 The onset of this highly contagious and deadly disease forced the closure of public spaces across the country – including bars, schools, and other non-essential public spaces.2 Mask mandates were enacted and stay-at-home orders were imposed on some regions, much like today.3 With limited access to telephones – and Zoom decades away – what changes did provincial and territorial legislatures and the federal Parliament adopt in order to continue working through these difficult times?
Parliamentary recesses were the most common reaction to the outbreak. The federal House of Commons rose for its summer recess on May 24, 1918, and did not sit again until February 20, 1919.4 Although provincial legislature records during this period are sparse, we know that Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, and British Columbia all had similarly long recesses during the peak of the pandemic.5 The first case of Spanish flu in Canada was reported in Quebec on September 8, 1918, and approximately 90 per cent of the deaths in Canada occurred between October 1918 and December 1918.6
With the politicians away, the centrally located and spacious legislatures were repurposed as medical facilities. Queen’s Park in Toronto was the home base for the city’s influenza response: a legion of doctors, nurses and volunteers known as the “Sisters of Services” first convened in October 1918 at the Ontario Legislature and dispatched medical services to the surrounding area.7 For 24 hours a day, medical officials trained volunteers and tended to patients at the legislature under the direction of Dr. John McCullough, Ontario’s chief officer of health.8 There are no records to determine whether Members carried on with their political duties from elsewhere during this time. However, we do know that demand for telephone installations (still a very recent invention) rose sharply that year, as shut-in citizens searched for ways to connect with family and friends.9
Upon their return to work in January or February 1919, none of the legislatures appeared to have taken any precautions to prevent the spread of the flu among parliamentarians. Instead, from Alberta to Quebec, provincial politicians packed into their respective chambers, often with spouses or other guests in tow, to listen to the Throne Speech.10 There are no records in any of the provinces to suggest that distancing measures or face masks were put in place in parliaments, although the third wave of the flu was still raging across the world in the new year. The legislature in Edmonton took this recklessness one step further: on February 4, 1919, the Alberta Legislative Assembly hosted a large gala to celebrate the first sitting of parliament since the end of the war.11 Complete with dancing, singing and a buffet, it was the “brightest event of the season”12 where the latest fashions of high society were shown off. Records do not confirm whether the provincial mask mandate, enacted in the autumn of 1918, was enforced on the sartorial displays.
The biggest marks left by the last pandemic on the legislatures of Canada were personal: many parliamentarians lost family members, friends, and in some cases their own lives to the flu. Policy-wise, this grief translated into increased funding to public health bodies, including the department that would become Health Canada. Up until 1919, there had not been a federal health body in Canada, as health was considered provincial jurisdiction. During the crisis, authorities from across Canada called for national coordination and in the spring of 1919, the work began in both houses of federal Parliament to establish a department of health within the Department of Immigration. As Senator James Lougheed proclaimed during the tabling of the bill in the Red Chamber: “we should make a start, and begin to realize the responsibility which rests upon the central Government for adopting proper measures for the protection of the health of the community.”13
1 Patricia G. Bailey, Janice Dickin and Erin James-Abra. “1918 Spanish Flu in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, March 19 2020, https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1918-spanish-flu-in-canada.
4 Parliament of Canada, Journals of the House of Commons, 13th Parliament 1st and 2nd sessions, 1918-03-18 to 1918-05-24, 1919-02-20 to 1919-07-07.
5 Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, 14th Legislature 4th and 5th sessions, 1918-02-05 to 1918-03-26 , 1919-02-25 to 1919-04-24; Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Alberta, 4th Legislature 1st and 2nd sessions, 1918-02-07 to 1918-04-13 and 1919-02-04 to 1919-04-17; Assemblée Nationale du Québec, Journal du débats, 14th Legislature 2nd and 3rd sessions, 1917-12-04 to 1918-02-09 and 1919-01-21 to 1919-03-17; Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, 14th Legislature 4th and 5th sessions, 1918-02-05 to 1918-03-26 , 1919-02-25 to 1919-04-24; Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Alberta, 4th Legislature 1st and 2nd sessions, 1918-02-07 to 1918-04-13 and 1919-02-04 to 1919-04-17; Assemblée Nationale du Québec, Journal du débats, 14th Legislature 2nd and 3rd sessions, 1917-12-04 to 1918-02-09 and 1919-01-21 to 1919-03-17; Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia, 14th Legislature, 2nd and 3rd sessions, 1918-02-07 to 1918-04-23 and 1919-01-30 to 1919-03-29.
6 Bailey, Dickin and Erin James-Abra. “1918 Spanish Flu in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.
7 “New Army to Fight Flu: Sisters of Service are organized at Parliament buildings,” The Globe, October 15, 1918, pg 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers; “Epidemic Not Yet at Crest: Outbreak of Influenza General in Ontario and Nurses Needed,” The Globe, October 21, 1918, page 7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
8 “Ontario Emergency Volunteer Help Auxiliary, Day and Night Service,” Toronto Daily Star, October 21, 1918, pg 13. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Toronto Star;
9 Kirsty Duncan, “Hunting the 1918 Flu,” The Globe and Mail, May 26, 2003 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/hunting-the-1918-flu/article20449384/.
10 “Brighter Spirit of Times is Reflected at Opening of First After War Session Legislature,” Edmonton Bulletin, Wednesday February 5, 1919, article 1. Alberta Legislature Library Scrapbook Hansard Collection.
13 Senate of Canada, Senate Debates 13th Parliament, 2nd Session volume 1, pg 288-89. https://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_SOC1302_01/300?r=0&s=3