New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “Francis Mackey and the Halifax Explosion”

Our latest podcast episode is now available. Check out “Francis Mackey and the Halifax Explosion.”

A black and white photo of smoke rising over the Halifax harbour

A large smoke plume after the collision between the ships Mont Blanc and Imo, resulting in the Mont Blanc exploding in the Halifax Harbour (PA-138907)

On the morning of December 6th, 1917, Pilot Francis Mackey was guiding the French ship Mont Blanc into the Bedford Basin when, at the narrowest point of the harbour, it collided with the Norwegian ship Imo. The Mont Blanc, laden down with high explosives, caught fire and, about 20 minutes later, exploded.

The blast, which was the greatest man-made explosion until the invention of the first atomic bombs, levelled the Richmond district of Halifax, parts of Dartmouth, and wiped out the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove.

On today’s episode, we talk with retired teacher and author Janet Maybee. Her book Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey attempts to clear Mackey’s name and restore honour to the Mackey family.

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

Japanese Canadian internment: 40,000 pages and 180 photos digitized by the DigiLab

By Karine Gélinas

The DigiLab has hosted over forty projects since its launch in 2017, and two of those were carried out by Landscapes of Injustice. Landscapes of Injustice is a seven-year humanities project led by the University of Victoria to research and make known the history of the dispossession and deportation of Japanese-Canadians in 1942.

In total, over 40,000 pages of textual material and a little more than 180 photos were digitized by the two researchers with Landscapes of Injustice. Some of the documents are now available online for all to consult. Below is a sample of material now accessible.

Photographs relating to Japanese Canadian internment

To see all the photos that were digitized, you can search for “Photographs relating to Japanese-Canadian internment” in our Collection Search tool.

View of a small town surrounded by mountains. In the foreground are multiple buildings and in the background on the left are rows of smaller houses.

Evacuee homes in Lemon Creek, BC (e999900291-u)

A man is standing in front of a large, tilted shelving unit filled with Japanese characters used in a printing press.

Some of the thousands of Japanese typeface characters used for The New Canadian, a newspaper that was published every week in Kaslo, BC. The offices are now in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (e999900358-u)

Three women, one of whom is a nurse, are standing around a kitchen island with trays, dishes and bottles of milk on the surface and utensils hanging from the rack that runs down the middle of the unit.

The modern kitchen of the Greenwood camp hospital. (e999900255-u)

Textual documents

Case files

Related links

Interested in the DigiLab?

If you have an idea for a project, please email the DigiLab with an overview of your project, the complete reference of the material you would like to digitize, and any extra information you know about the collection. Material must be free from restrictions and copyright.

After we verify the condition of the material to ensure it can be digitized safely, we will plan time for you in the DigiLab. We will provide training on handling the material and using the equipment, and you will be able to digitize and capture simple metadata.

We hope to hear from you soon!


Karine Gélinas is a project manager in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The Grey Fox: Legendary train robber and prison escapee Bill Miner

By Caitlin Webster

Nicknamed “The Grey Fox” and “The Gentleman Bandit,” Bill Miner was a legendary criminal on both sides of the Canada–U.S. border. Although he committed dozens of robberies and escaped from multiple prisons, many saw him as a generous folk hero who targeted exploitative corporations only. Library and Archives Canada holds many documents, publications, sound and video recordings, and other materials relating to Miner, and hundreds of these documents are now available on our website as a Co-Lab crowdsourcing challenge.

Newspaper page showing text, an illustration of two armed men on horseback approaching a train, a portrait of the author, and photographs of Bill Miner, Shorty Dunn and Lewis Colquhoun.

Article in The Province newspaper on January 18, 1958: “Bill Miner – last of the train robbers” (e011201062-019-v8)

 

Born Ezra Allan Miner on December 27, 1846, Miner began his criminal career as a teenager, stealing horses and robbing merchants in northern California. He later moved on to burglarizing homes and robbing stagecoaches in California and Colorado, where he and his accomplices often took away thousands of dollars in cash, gold dust, bonds and other goods. His polite, conversational manner during robberies earned him the nickname The Gentleman Bandit. Law enforcement eventually caught up with Miner, and despite multiple escape attempts, he spent decades behind bars in San Quentin State Prison.

When Miner was finally released in 1901, it was to an unfamiliar 20th-century American West. After trying his hand as an oyster farmer, he soon returned to a life of crime. As stagecoaches had been replaced by ever-expanding railroads, Miner turned to train robbery. He tried and failed twice to rob express trains in Oregon, and escaped across the border to settle in Princeton, British Columbia. There he established himself as a cattle trader and ranch hand, using the alias George Edwards. Known for his generosity, Miner was well liked in the small town.

By 1904, Miner had recruited new accomplices and was ready to target another train, this time in Canada. On September 10, along with partners Jake Terry and Shorty Dunn, The Grey Fox robbed a Canadian Pacific Railway train at Mission Junction, B.C. After taking thousands of dollars in cash, gold, bonds and securities, the bandits evaded capture for over a year and a half. Then on May 8, 1906, Miner, Dunn and a new accomplice named Louis Colquhoun held up a CPR train at Ducks (now Monte Creek), near Kamloops. However, this job was an abject disaster. The take was only $15.50, the men were forced to flee on foot, and they were captured five days later. Yet with his popularity in the area and the anti-CPR sentiment at the time, crowds of supporters greeted Miner as the Royal North-West Mounted Police brought him in to Kamloops.

On June 1, 1906, all three men were tried and convicted, and the next day Miner began his life sentence at the B.C. Penitentiary in New Westminster. During his stay, Miner expressed no remorse, reportedly telling the visiting Reverend A.D.E. Owen, “I am what I am, and I have done what I have done, but I can look God and man in the face unashamed.” The same clergyman observed how Miner charmed fellow inmates and penitentiary staff, and warned the acting warden, “Old Bill is a man who is well worth watching.”

Two photographs of Bill Miner showing a front view and a profile view. They show Miner with his hair closely cut, and his mustache shaved.

Mug shot photographs of a shaven and shorn Bill Miner at the beginning of his sentence at the B.C. Penitentiary (e011201061-128-v8)

Form with physical description and criminal conviction details.

B.C. Penitentiary intake form for Bill Miner (e011201060-009-v8)

 

The warning was prophetic, as Miner escaped from the penitentiary on August 8, 1907. Guards and police searched the surrounding area, and then the wider Vancouver region, with no success. Rumours spread that he had received outside help to escape, in exchange for the return of bonds and securities he had stolen in the 1904 CPR robbery. In addition, newspapers reported high levels of public sympathy for Miner, with many expressing their wish that he never be recaptured.

Map on blue background, labelled to show general locations of penitentiary, asylum, and surrounding streets, park, and the Fraser River. Annotations indicate location of fence where Miner escaped, as well as other details of the local area.

Blueprint of B.C. Penitentiary site, showing location where Bill Miner escaped, as well as the surrounding area (e011201060-179-v8)

Poster showing photograph of Bill Miner, announcing a $500 reward for his recapture, listing details as to his escape, and describing his physical characteristics.

Reward notice for the recapture of Bill Miner, sent to police departments, publications and private detective agencies (e011201060-210-v8)

In the end, Miner returned to the United States and lived in Colorado until his money ran out. In 1911, he robbed a train in Georgia. He and his accomplices were caught within days, and at 64 years old, Miner was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After escaping in 1911 and 1912, Miner died in prison on September 2, 1913.

Library and Archives Canada holdings include records from the B.C. Penitentiary that provide fascinating details on Bill Miner and his escape from the prison. These documents are now available as a Co-Lab challenge, and include intake forms and mug shots of Miner, reports of prison officials, newspaper clippings, and letters from individuals claiming to have spotted The Grey Fox, even years after his death. Co-Lab is a crowdsourcing tool that invites the public to contribute transcription, translation, tags and description text. The public contributions then become metadata to improve our search tools and enhance everyone’s experience of the historical record.

 


Caitlin Webster is an archivist in the Vancouver office of the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

 

 

In their own words: Inmate publications of the British Columbia Penitentiary

By Olivia Cocking

In March 1951, inmates at the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster, B.C. published the first edition of the penitentiary’s bimonthly magazine, Transition. Prison administrators promoted penal publications such as Transition during the 1950s and 1960s as part of a broader initiative to remodel the correctional system around a model of rehabilitation rather than punishment. With subscriptions offered for external readers at the rate of $1 annually, the editorial staff of Transition worked not only to keep inmates abreast of daily life at the penitentiary but also to establish a “feeling of understanding and faith” between prisoners and broader society.

Cover illustration showing an old-fashioned train engine and caboose, a railway station with a sign reading “Agassiz,” and a handcart containing mailbags labelled “BCP”

Front cover of the May–June 1961 issue of Transition magazine (e011311001)

Staffed by an editorial team of inmates and published at B.C. Penitentiary’s own print shop, Transition offered the penitentiary’s residents a chance to voice their views on a wide variety of subjects. Issues of the magazine featured editorials, articles of fiction and critical commentary, as well as coverage of prison sports and entertainment. Recurring columns included one on advice by a Dr. Larrup Loogan, called “What’s Your Beef?” and a section on prison affairs aimed primarily at the inmates, titled “The Inmate Speaks.” Holiday issues of Transition offered a particularly touching perspective, featuring seasonal greetings from inmates to friends and family, as well as reflections on the experience of the holiday season from inside the penitentiary. As one writer in the November–December 1959 issue noted poignantly, “high walls have a way of casting thick shadows across the laughter of a Christmas meant to be bright.”

Cover illustration with text “Merry Xmas,” showing two children in pyjamas facing a fireplace where Christmas stockings are hanging from the mantle.

Front cover of the November–December 1960 issue of Transition magazine (e011311002)

Publications like Transition often faced challenges in balancing the goal of providing an authentic outlet for inmates to express their views within the constraints of administrative censorship. However, given the realities of censorship, one of the most striking features of Transition is the frequency and depth of the critical analyses of criminal justice issues. Columnists discussed policy debates and offered personal perspectives on the effectiveness of Canadian strategies for prisoner rehabilitation. In Transition’s January–February 1959 issue, one columnist contended that Canadian efforts at rehabilitation had failed to live up to their goals, arguing that Canadian penitentiaries did “little but instill in the majority of inmates either a conscious or an unconscious desire to get even with society.” However, not all articles were equally disparaging. For example, a feature in the May–June 1961 issue detailed the positive contributions of B.C. Penitentiary’s blacksmith shop: “The inmate tradesmen in the BCP blacksmith shop are performing a public service that could be performed in no other way and by no one else. This is a fact in which these men can justifiably take pride.”

Cover illustration showing a man sitting at a desk writing a letter with his right hand and holding his head in his left hand, which also holds a lit cigarette.

Front cover of the September–October 1957 issue of Transition magazine  (e011311003)

Drug use and its treatment by the criminal justice system represented another frequent topic of debate among Transition’s columnists. The January–February 1959 issue features two contrasting opinions on the criminalization of drugs. One columnist argued that “the addict is a person who is mentally and morally incompetent” who could not be parted from his criminal tendencies by the legalization of drugs. The other contended that the social problems created by drug use lie in its criminalization, and not in the addicts themselves. As a result, he advocated the legalization of drugs as a government cost-saving measure and a remedy to the culture of criminality surrounding drugs.

Inmate columnists did not restrict their commentary to criminal justice issues. For example, the opening editorial of the 1961 Christmas edition sketches a pointed critique of voter apathy in Canadian elections. The editorial analysis presented by the columnists is especially effective when they highlight the eagerness with which their otherwise disenfranchised fellow inmates participate in Inmates Council elections. As they note, “Possibly they could set an example for the citizens and send forth emissaries to use a little rehabilitation on them.”

Back cover illustration showing a hand holding a cup containing signposts with various messages, such as “What Is A Convict?”, “Inside Looking Out”, “Rehabilitation?”, and “100 Year Failure!” A subscription form is included below the illustration.

Back cover of the January–February 1959 issue of Transition magazine (e011311004)

The vibrant discussion of criminal justice issues found in the pages of Transition reflects a broader debate taking place among policymakers during this period over how to best create an environment for the successful rehabilitation of inmates. This contentious atmosphere placed increasing strain on relationships of prison administrators and the penal press. By the mid-1960s, administrative, financial, and distribution support for penal publications decreased and censorship escalated, marking the decline of a Canadian penal press that catered to an external audience on any significant scale. As a result, issues of Transition published at the height of the magazine’s circulation during the 1950s and 1960s represent an invaluable resource, providing a unique look into the intellectual lives of inmates and an original perspective on criminal justice issues.


Olivia Cocking works at Library and Archives Canada’s Vancouver public service point as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP).

Images of Working Dogs now on Flickr

Working dogs learn and perform tasks to support and sometimes amuse their owners.

A black-and-white photograph of a boy with his dog harnessed to a two-wheeled cart. The cart is loaded with dried cod.

Dog cart loaded with cod “Ready for market,” Gaspé, Quebec [e010861908]

A black-and-white photograph of a circus dog jumping from a platform on a tall pole. Four men below hold a large blanket to catch the falling dog.

Professor Gentry’s diving dog, Toronto Industrial Exhibition, Ontario [PA-068465]

Regardless of whether they are purebreds or mixed breeds, these dogs are trained to do a variety of jobs very well. Some of the jobs include pulling carts and sleds, herding livestock, hunting, as well as providing valued services to the community such as policing, search and rescue, therapy, and guarding homes, businesses and buildings.

A black-and-white photograph of 11 dogs pulling a sled through the snow. Two men are supporting and balancing the weight of a large canoe on the sled.

A dog team on Gordon Bay, Hudson Strait, Nunavut [PA-121599]

A black-and-white photograph of a man with his four dogs wearing pack harnesses.

Dogs carrying packs ready for the trail, Valley of the Firth River, Yukon [PA-044646]

The breed chosen often depends on what the job requires; however, most dogs share common canine traits of strength, discipline, intelligence and loyalty.

A black-and-white photograph of a dog harnessed to a small two-wheeled passenger cart. A girl sits on the cart and holds the reins to her dog.

A girl driving a cart at Harvey’s, Toronto, Ontario [PA-069924]

Visit the Flickr album now!

New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “Songs of the Season”

Our latest podcast episode is now available. Check out “Songs of the Season.”

Library and Archives Canada has the largest collection of Canadian music in existence. There are over 250,000 sound and video recordings alone, not to mention huge collections of sheet music, printed scores, concert programs and books. Therefore, it goes without saying that LAC also has the largest collection of Christmas and holiday music as well.

Joining us today to talk about some of this Christmas and holiday music in LAC’s collection, is music archivist, and LAC co-choir leader, Joseph Trivers.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

Images of Cartes-de-Visite now on Flickr

A carte-de-visite is a type of calling card popular during the mid- to late 19th century.

A black-and-white photograph of Napoléon Bourassa’s left profile.

Napoléon Bourassa [e008302188]

The card consisted of a photographic print glued onto a cardboard backing. These cards were inexpensive and easy to produce, and varied slightly in size. Cards were commonly given out to friends and family during holidays or for special events. Collectors, at the time, put their cards into albums. Images were not limited to family and friends—famous individuals from the past were also featured on cartes-de-visite.

A black-and-white photolithograph of two dogs, one large and one small, looking out from the entrance to a doghouse.

Two dogs [e011196678]

A black-and-white photographic portrait of 27 young girls wearing medals and seated around a nun.

Group of girls wearing medals seated around a nun [e010969237]

A black-and-white photographic portrait of a dog resting on a chair next to a boy and a man holding a rifle.

Hunter with a boy and dog [e011196672]

Visit the Flickr album now!

Governor General’s Literary Awards 2018

By Liane Belway

Each autumn at Library and Archives Canada, we celebrate the best in Canadian literature by supporting the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Begun in 1936 and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts since 1959, these awards showcase the best in the year’s literary publishing. (Conveniently just in time for holiday shopping, in case you are looking for a gift for the book lovers in your life.) Reflecting Canada’s rich literary diversity, the fourteen winners in two official languages and seven categories were announced on October 30.

Here are all the winners, in English and French.

Fiction

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra, published by ECW Press and distributed by Jaguar Books Group, ISBN 978-1-77041-424-2.

De synthèse by Karoline Georges, published by Éditions Alto and distributed by Diffusion Dimedia, ISBN 978-2-89694-349-4.

Poetry

Wayside Sang by Cecily Nicholson, published by Talonbooks and distributed by PGC Books/Raincoast, ISBN 978-1-77201-182-1.

La raison des fleurs by Michaël Trahan, published by Le Quartanier and distributed by Diffusion Dimedia, ISBN 978-2-89698-359-9.

Drama

Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom by Jordan Tannahill, published by Playwrights Canada Press and distributed by University of Toronto Press, ISBN 978-1-77091-917-4.

Venir au monde by Anne-Marie Olivier, published by Atelier 10 and distributed by Flammarion/Socadis, ISBN 978-2-89759-303-2.

Non-fiction

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age by Darrel J. McLeod, published by Douglas & McIntyre and distributed by University of Toronto Press, ISBN 978-1-77162-200-4.

Avant l’après : voyages à Cuba avec George Orwell by Frédérick Lavoie, published by La Peuplade and distributed by Diffusion Dimedia, ISBN 978-2-924519-75-2.

Young People’s Literature–Text

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier, published and distributed by Puffin Canada/Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers, ISBN 978-0-7352-6435-9.

Ferdinand F., 81 ans, chenille, by Mario Brassard, published by Soulières éditeur and distributed by Messageries ADP, ISBN 978-2-89607-413-6.

Young People’s Literature–Illustrated Books

They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, published by Groundwood Books and distributed by University of Toronto Press, ISBN 978-1-77306-020-0.

Le chemin de la montagne by Marianne Dubuc, published by Comme des géants and distributed by Diffusion Dimedia, ISBN 978-2-924332-40-5.

Translation

Descent into Night, translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, published by Mawenzi House Publishers and distributed by University of Toronto Press. It is a translation of Explication de la nuit by Edem Awumey, published by Les Éditions du Boréal, ISBN 978-1-988449-16-6.

Le Monde selon Barney, translated by Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné, published by Les Éditions du Boréal and distributed by Diffusion Dimedia. It is a translation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler, published by Knopf Canada, ISBN 978-2-7646-2503-3.

Find out more:

https://ggbooks.ca/#winners

https://livresgg.ca/#gagnants

A wealth of great Canadian literature in both official languages is represented in the GG selections, so check out the winners at your local library or search in Voilà, Canada’s catalogue to find a lending library near you.


Liane Belway is a librarian in the Acquisitions section of Published Heritage at Library and Archives Canada.

Butterflies, love triangles and the northern lights

By Shane McCord

The recently concluded Library and Archives Canada (LAC) exhibition Premiere included four drawings by midshipman Robert Hood (c. 1797–1821). These drawings were first presented on the Discover Blog in April 2015, shortly after they had been acquired by LAC. Robert Hood was a talented draftsman, cartographer, scientist, natural historian, and anthropologist before the term existed. He is remembered today for his participation in the 1819–1822 Coppermine Expedition, led by John Franklin. While on this expedition, Hood was the first to document various species of animals and insects. He was also the first to note the electromagnetic nature of the aurora borealis. Posthumously, some of his drawings were reproduced and published in Franklin’s account of the expedition, which included a glowing report on Hood’s work and conduct.

While Hood is known, to a degree, for the contributions to scientific knowledge he made during the expedition, his story is also remembered for the part he played in a now infamous love triangle between himself, a Dené woman known as Greenstockings, and Sir George Back, another artist who was part of the expedition. The story, which includes a failed duel between Back and Hood, has been told many times and is neatly summarized in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Hood.

A colour lithograph of a woman sitting on the ground and mending a snowshoe, with a man standing on the right. Both figures are wearing long fur cloaks.

Keskarrah a guide from the Yellowknife Denes and his daughter Green Stockings, mending a snow shoe (e011156563)

All the members of the expedition were suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion, and Hood did not survive. He was likely near death when he was killed by a fellow member of the expedition, the voyageur Michel Terohaute. Terohaute was executed for the murder, and was later suspected of cannibalism.

A watercolour of two young Inuit men wearing western-style clothing. One is captioned “Augustus”, the other “Junius”.

Portraits of the [Inuit] interpreters from Churchill, employed by the North Land Expedition. (e011154367)

The first of the four drawings shown in the Premiere exhibition is a double portrait of two Inuit guides and interpreters, Tattanoeuck (“Augustus”) and Hoeootoerock (“Junius”). Tattannoeuck was a member of three expeditions, two with Franklin (1819–1821, 1825–1827) and one with Back (1833–1835). He was heavily involved in these expeditions and was well respected by his companions, to the point that Sir John Richardson, a member of both the first and second Franklin expeditions, named a species of butterfly Callophrys augustinus in his honour. Hoeootoerock was separated from the members of the Coppermine Expedition during the crossing of the Coppermine, and is presumed to have died there.

Two of the drawings are depictions of northern mammals: a mink and a cross fox. At the time these works were produced, such species were becoming objects of study in Western European science. Images such as these were among the primary reasons why Hood, an officer with a talent for drawing, was selected for the expedition. Apart from their aesthetic value, these images were important as evidence of wildlife in the region of the expedition and provided valuable information for the expansion of the fur trade.

A watercolour of a mink peering into the water by a rocky river shore.

[Mink] (e011154368)

A watercolour of a white fox hunting a mouse in a snowy landscape.

[Cross Fox catching a Mouse] (e011154369)

The final and most interesting drawing shows the interior of a Cree tent. The inscription is “Interior of a Southern Indian tent; taken on the Basquiase Hill, Cumberland House, Hudson’s Bay. The tent is made of Moose skin parchment; the cloathes [sic] of the indians are made of skins. The cloth obtained from the English factories. March 25th 1820 Robert Hood North Land Expedition.” The drawing is valuable for the anthropological information it provides and for its historical context. In Hood’s journal from the expedition, he describes making such a drawing on March 31, and he provides several anecdotes regarding the people in the tent. It is yet to be determined if this is that same drawing and there is an inaccuracy in the dates, or if Hood made a second drawing.

A watercolour showing the interior of a tent. Seven people are sitting around a fire. One is a mother with a child in a cradleboard. Pelts or meat are drying on a cross beam and a pot of food is over the fire. A musket and a bow and arrows are leaning against the side of the tent. One person is eating and another is smoking a pipe, while the others appear to be observing the artist (Hood) at work.

[Interior of a Cree tent] (e011154370)

All four of these drawings relay important documentary evidence about the region of Cumberland House, in what is now northern Saskatchewan. These drawings are also fascinating simply as items carried on that ill-fated journey. The Franklin expeditions are an important part of the history of Canada’s development as a nation, and the tragic aspects of the first expedition in particular have made it one of the most popular and well-known episodes in Arctic history.


Shane McCord is an art archivist in the Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

1918 Spanish flu epidemic

By Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Toward the end of the First World War, as Canadian troops were involved in Canada’s Hundred Days, a new enemy—even tougher than the Kaiser’s Germany—attacked soldiers and civilians alike, ignoring borders.

In just a few months, the 1918 influenza epidemic spread around most of the world, reaching pandemic proportions. It became known as the “Spanish flu” because Spanish journalists, not subject to wartime censorship, were the first to report publicly on the epidemic in Europe.

Historians are divided on the precise origin of the 1918 influenza outbreak. However, they do agree that the rapid spread of the disease was hastened by the presence of large numbers of soldiers in military camps, which became excellent incubators for the virus. Soldiers returning to their home countries intensified the spread of the disease.

The first serious flu cases in Canada occurred toward the end of summer 1918, while the First World War was still raging. Port authorities in Halifax and Québec, where ships docked bringing home the wounded and the ill, noted the first cases and warned federal health officials about the situation.

Federal authorities quickly carried out medical examinations of passengers on ships travelling from Europe. They quarantined people who showed signs of influenza. Essentially, the officials tried the same measures that were used in the 19th century to deal with cholera epidemics. However, sailing ships had given way to ocean liners carrying thousands of soldiers to the war and back. Canada’s four quarantine stations could not halt the progress of the epidemic, despite the best efforts of the doctors trying to contain it.

By autumn 1918, influenza was racing through the population like wildfire. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded and were hard pressed to receive more patients. Many people were therefore cared for at home or in temporary facilities, such as mobile military field hospitals. Overworked medical personnel were also hit by the flu themselves. This meant that relatives or friends were often called on to care for the sick, which contributed to the spread of the disease.

Sketch showing the various components of a mobile hospital.

Plan of a mobile hospital proposed by the firm I.H. Bogart & Son of Boston in the United States, RG29 vol. 300 (e011165378-045)

However, the number of deaths was soon growing so rapidly that there was even a waiting list for… cemetery burials. Across the country, health officials put regulations in place to try to stop the spread of the devastating outbreak. Schools, theatres, libraries and, in short, almost all public places—sometimes even churches—closed their doors. Many people wore masks to try to protect themselves, and anyone who dared to spit was strongly reprimanded. This was because, despite the fact that the epidemic could not be stopped, people knew it was influenza and the virus spread from person to person through the air.

Black-and-white photo of three men wearing hygienic masks.

Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic (a025025)

Soldiers returning to Canada at the end of the war found their families decimated. This was the case for soldier Arthur-Joseph Lapointe, father of Jean Lapointe, a retired senator. In his memoirs, Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat, 1916-1919, he recounts that on his return home, his father, looking deeply sombre, delivered very sad news:

“We did not want to tell you the extent of the misfortune that has befallen us, because we did not know when you might be coming back, and it would have made your life unbearable. A terrible flu epidemic took three of your brothers and two sisters in the space of nine days.” [translation]

Over several tragic months, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 20 million people around the world, including some 50,000 in Canada—almost as many as died in the four years of fighting during the First World War.

Federal health officials were heavily criticized for implementing outdated and inadequate quarantine measures, and for their lack of vision and leadership. After taking stock of its ineffectual actions during the influenza pandemic, the federal government created the Department of Health in 1919.

Records related to this tragedy can be found at Library and Archives Canada. More information is available in our thematic guide on the Spanish flu epidemic.


Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior archivist in Military Affairs, Government Archives Division, at Library and Archives Canada.