Spanish Flu in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Just over 100 years ago, the Province of Ontario, including the Town of Oshawa experienced a public health crisis that resembles today’s COVID-19.  From 1918 – 1920 the Spanish Influenza swept the world and killed 50 million people world wide, taking the lives of young and otherwise healthy adults.  The Spanish Influenza started in February 1918 while the First World War was ongoing and approaching its end, creating the ideal environment for the flu to infect, multiply, and spread rapidly across the globe.  It reached the United States in March 1918, and it reached Canada through troop, hospital and civilian ships sailing from England to Grosse Île.  The Ports of Montreal and Halifax were the main routes of infection into Canada; by late June and early July, it spread across the country via the railway.  According to public health authorities, “The failure to restrict train travel early on was one of the terrible oversights.”   It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920.

Image from the collection of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

In Canada, 50,000 people died, accelerated by complications from infections such as pneumonia.  In Ontario, 300,000 cases and 8,705 deaths were recorded. But these figures likely don’t tell the whole story: medical systems were overwhelmed, meaning that many fatalities almost certainly went unreported; this is evident in the reports that were sent in from local Medical Officers of Health.  The largest percentages of deaths in Ontario from the Spanish Flu occurred in York County which represented 17.3% of the total epidemic deaths. York contained Toronto, the largest city at the time. Carleton County, which included Ottawa, accounted for 5.8% of the deaths, and Wentworth, including Hamilton, had 5.1% of the deaths. No other individual county had more than 5% of the total deaths.  Between 1918 and 1919, Oshawa had a population of approximately 10,000, and there were just over 300 deaths recorded; 84 of those deaths were infants under one year of age.  

Just like today, we tend to think of the young and the elderly as being most at risk, but most of those who died during the Spanish Flu epidemic were between the ages of 20 and 40 — the same demographic already decimated by the First World War. In Canada, the provinces of Quebec and Alberta were the most severely affected, which is one of the reasons archives like the Glenbow Archives in Alberta have a wealth of information related to public health and the Spanish Flu.  

In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the Maternity hospital located at Llewellyn Hall, and it was reported that 95% of the babies in the Ward passed away. Unfortunately these numbers were not accounted for or submitted to the provincial board of health as a direct relation to the Spanish Flu, but this may have been the reason why 53 infants under the age of one died that year.  

Provincial Board of Health report, 1919

The following year in 1919, it was reported by Dr. McKay, the medical officer of health for Oshawa, that the town was not greatly affected by the Spanish Flu in 1918, which is indicated by the decrease in deaths attributed to ‘the freedom of the town from the Spanish Flu epidemic.’  When the epidemic hit Oshawa, beds were placed in the armouries to treat the sick, and all churches and schools were closed to prevent spreading.  

Just like today, everyone was encouraged to stay home, however, on November 11, 1918, it was impossible to convince Ontarians to stay home. Despite continued concerns about public gatherings and pleas from politicians to wait until December, people all over the province took to the streets to celebrate the Allied victory and the end of the The Great War.  

Armistice Parade, 1918; image courtesy of the Thomas Bouckley Collection, The RMG

This was our own community celebrating in the streets of Oshawa with the Armistice Parade that took place in November 1918.   It would be the following year, in 1919, when Oshawa and the surrounding communities were hit the hardest by the Spanish Influenza.  Let’s take a lesson from history, and please stay home. 


The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1920

The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1905 

Christopher Rutty and Sue Sullivan, This is Public Health: A Canadian History.  Canadian Public Health Association, 2010

Susan Goldenburg, Killer Flu, September 11, 2018. Canada’s History

M. Humphries, Lessons From the 1918 Pandemic: Focus on Treatment, Not Prevention, Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009.

Historical Context, Modern Narratives, and Louis Riel

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our popular Blog Series is ‘The Month That Was,’ which looks at a month of newspapers from the past, highlighting interesting stories, images, advertisements, and anything else eye catching. Often, the stories are quaint, humourful, or sometimes, they can give an insight into the happenings and/or politics at the time.  Newspapers leading up to elections are always interesting, especially those from the mid 1800s as the newspapers had very evident political biases. 

Sometimes, a simple annotation to the historical article can enhance a modern reader’s understanding of the event. For example, the August 9, 1872 edition of the Ontario Reformer reported:

Grace Marks received her pardon on condition that she would leave this country never to return.  She left Kingston on Tuesday, for the United States.

With this, an annotation was added, explaining that Grace was the subject of the popular Margaret Atwood book, later turned miniseries, Alias Grace.

When the trivia is short and simple, it makes annotating easy without taking away from the purpose of the article, highlighting stories from decades past.

However, while reading the newspapers in October 1873, news stories gave pause and left questions as to whether to present the articles as written, to annotate, or to exclude the stories because the additional context needed was greater than the blog post allowed. We opted for the latter, allowing another post, this one, to give the needed context.

Many articles in the October 24,1873 edition of the Ontario Reformer were discussing the results of a by-election in Manitoba which saw Louis Riel elected as a Member of Parliament.

The editors of the Reformer published their own editorials, slanted with their Liberal bias:

The Riel Difficulty
Riel, the murderer of Scott, is in Ottawa to-day claiming his seat as one of the People’s representatives, sheltering himself from just punishment behind a pardon granted by Sir John Macdonald… The question will then arise, however, how far that amnesty can be made to stretch.  While granting immunity to subjects in rebellion to Her Majesty’s laws, can it be also held to shelter the wilful, deliberate, unprovoked brutal murder of one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects – not while in arms against the so-called Provisional Government, but while a helpless prisoner, utterly incapable of either resistance or disturbance. We believe very many of the member’s from Ontario maintain that the amnesty cannot be held to cover this foul crime, and we trust that bad as the character which the second Parliament has earned it, it will not be further sullied by association with a convicted murderer.

There was also the following inclusion:

An Opinion of Riel
We have been requested to publish the following resolution, passed last evening, and we commend it to the attention of the Hon. Mr. Gibbs:

Oshawa, Oct 23rd, 1873

An Emergency Meeting of the LO [Loyal Orange] Lodge, No 686, held at Oshawa, it was unanimously resolved that we regret to learn, that Louis Riel has been elected as a Representative to the House of Commons, of the Dominion of Canada, and , that we, as a Body, feel that his presence as a Representative in your Honorable House, would be a scandal and disgrace to our country, and utterly distasteful to the Members of our Loyal Orange Association, as well as to a large portion of the inhabitants of our Country, and we humbly trust that measures will be taken as will prevent him from taking a seat in the Parliament of the Dominion, and to bring him speedily to account for the murder of Thomas Scott in Manitoba, and that a copy of this resolution be sent to the Secretary of State and the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.

The words being used by the various authors are strong: “murderer,” “utterly distasteful,” “foul crime,” and “disgrace to our country.” According to the Reformer, the local Orange Society was one of many around the country holding such meetings, wanting to see justice against Riel “if he attempts to enter the Province.”

Without providing additional historical and contemporary context to Riel, presenting these articles, as written, are not giving the full picture of the happenings of the Red River Resistance or of Riel himself, whom we know today to be a complex historical figure, far more complex than the villain he is painted to be by many of his colonial contemporaries.

According to his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, Louis Riel is “one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history,” with the Métis  people regarding him a hero, the French Canadians sympathizing with this “victim of Ontario religious and racial bigotry,” and while those in the mid-1800s in the Canadian east painted him the villain, many today regard him as one of the Father of Confederation, a founder of the province of Manitoba.

Carte-de-Visite Portrait of Louis Riel
Notman Studio. Library and Archives Canada, e003895129
Carte-de-visite portrait of Louis Riel taken in Ottawa after his election as MP for Provencher, Manitoba, 1873.
Image from the Canadian Encyclopedia

Riel was born on October 22, 1844 in Saint-Boniface, Red River Settlement (modern Manitoba).  He was regarded as very well spoken, and he gained notoriety in the late 1860s, standing up for Métis culture, way of life, and rights.

A purchase of land by the government from the Hudson’s Bay Company and subsequent land surveys resulted in the organization the Métis National Committee. They denied the surveyor entrance to the lands, Upper Fort Garry was seized from the HBC, and the Red River Colony, under the leadership of Riel, was formed.  In December 1869, the “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” was issued, rejecting “Canada’s authority to govern the Northwest and propos[ing] a negotiated settlement between Canada and the new provisional government” (Canadian Encyclopedia). Canadian delegates were sent, and negotiations resulted in the Manitoba Act, creating the fifth province to enter Confederation.  It was agreed that 1.4 million acres were to be reserved for Métis descendants, and it was also promised that Manitoba would officially be bilingual.

Meanwhile, a small group of Canadians appeared unpleased with the provisional Métis government.  They proceeded to Portage la Prairie, armed, and surprising the Métis who in turn imprisoned them.  A young Orangeman, Thomas Scott, was sentenced to death by a court martial convened by the Métis, a sentence that was not commuted by Riel; Scott was executed on March 4, 1870.  Protestants and Orange Lodge members in Ontario placed the blame for Scott’s death (or murder, as described later in Oshawa papers) upon Riel, who fled into exile after the Resistance.

Clearly, the situation surrounding the death of Thomas Scott is layered and cannot be simplified into the black and white. It fits well into the modern narratives of land rights, reconciliation, colonization, and repatriation. The Métis peoples appeared to be defending the lands where they had lived for decades and upon which their Indigenous ancestors had lived for millennia. Riel, representing the Red River Colony, was defending his people and their culture.  To simply present the 1873 ‘English/Orange’ narrative of Riel as murderer without the additional context, is an unfair representation, furthering the mistakes of history and repeating the 19th century detrimental biases.  The editors of the Ontario Reformer, in their wording of ‘so-called Provisional Government,’ made it clear how they felt about Riel’s and the Métis’ actions in late 1869/early 1870.

After his election in 1873, Riel took the oath but never took his seat in the House of Commons, fearing assassination or arrest. In the 1880s, Riel led a second, unsuccessful, resistance for which he was sentenced to death, which was carried out on November 16, 1885 in Regina.

It is difficult to fully present the Red River Resistance and founding of Manitoba in a blog post.  In writing this post, content from the Metis Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Encyclopedia, and Dictionary of Canadian Biography was used, and it is highly encouraged that they are examined for further reading.

The Month That Was – July 1872

All articles originally appeared in the Ontario Reformer

July 5

What has Mr. Gibbs done to Entitle Him to Re-election

Last week we left Mr. Gibbs voting steadily with the Government in favor of the long and expensive [date] for the Intercolonial Railway, but which Mr. Macdougall, one of the Ministers who ought to know all about it, says $8,000,000 were thrown into the sea –but which later dates to show to be $12,000,000 loss to the country instead of $8,000,000.

But we proceed. On 21st May Sir J. J. A. Macdonald (sic) moved, seconded by Sir. Geo. E. Cartier, – that the salary of the Governor General be fixed at £10,000 sterling (in round numbers, $50,000), per year. Mr. Oliver moved in amendment to make the sum £7,500 sterling, in round numbers, $37,250. Mr. Jones moved to make the salary $32,000. Vote on Mr. Jones’ amendment 59 to 90; on Oliver’s amendment, 59-90; on Sir John’s original motion, 89-60, – on every occasion Mr. Gibbs voting with Sir John and Sir George in favor of the largest sum, while Mackenzie, Thompson (of North Ontario) and the Reformers, voted steadily for the smallest amount.  Thus, through the united influence of the two Sirs in the Commons, an obsequious majority, aided by Mr. Gibbs, was induced to hand over $250,000 of the hard earnings of the working men of the country to each successive Governor-General sent from across the sea to remain here five years…

Sir John and Mr. Gibbs having just shown their disregard for the people’s purse, now proceed outraging the promptings of our better nature by seeking to re-establish the long since abolished barbarous custom of flogging prisoners with the lash. Sir John, seconded by George – humane brace of knights – moved that the flogging bull be read the third time…

Amendment lost: 40-76. Mackenzie and Thomson… vote against the flogging, while the brace of Knights, the Conservatives, and TN Gibbs join together in putting on the lash! Shame on you gentlemen!…


July 5

Mowing Machines Below Cost of Production

The Joseph Hall Manufacturing Company, of Oshawa, are offering some Ohio Junior Mowers, Ohio Mowers, large size; Cayuga Chief Junior Mower and Wood’s Self Rakers, at a price far below cost of production at the present cost of Iron. Machinery cannot be made at anything like present process, and farmers will do well to purchase this year, as the saving will be more than the interest of the money for many years. Labor must be very scares and dear. All wanting Machines will do well to come to Oshawa before purchases. Iron has risen one hundred per cent, and is still advancing.

July 5 1872 p3
July 5, 1872, page 3

July 12

Seventy Thousand Dollars!

This is the amount generally stated to be at the disposal of TN Gibbs, for the purpose of attempting to secure his re-election as representative of South Ontario in the House of Commons. But even this large sum will, we believe, prove themselves [mea], by spurring his bribes, and voting against Sir John’s most obedient automaton. Electors of South Ontario, redeem this riding from the disgrace under which it has lain for the past five years. Prove yourselves free men, and true men, by voting for Truman P. [White].


July 19

12th of July Celebration

On Friday morning last we were awakened at an early hour by the booming of cannon. It surprised us. We rubbed our eyes and began to think, when we remembered that it was the 12th of July, and that the Orangemen and Young Britons were welcoming the anniversary day of the Battle of the Boyne.

At half-past six am, the OYB’s assembled at their lodge room to make arrangements for the procession; and the Orangemen at half-past seven… The OYB’s lead (sic) the procession, headed by their fine fife and drum band, and presented the finest appearance we have ever seen in any procession of the kind here or elsewhere.  The Orangemen followed, beaded by the Whitby Brass Band, they also presented a very neat appearance… Everything passed off in a most harmonious manner, and with credit to the society.  The most pleasing feature of the demonstration was the sobriety with which it was conducted

July 19 1872 p2
July 19, 1872, page 2.

July 26

South Ontario Election

The writ, authorizing the election of a representative of this riding for the House of Commons, has been received by Mr. JH Perry, Returning Officer; and he has issued a proclamation appointing Thursday next, 1st August, as the day of nomination – to take place at Whitby, on the grounds adjoining the Town Hall.  Should Mr. Gibbs not take warning from the signs of defeat now plainly visible, and withdraw from the contest, voting will take place throughout the riding on Thursday, August 8th, at the following polling places:

East Whitby
No 1 – Cedar Dale Warehouse, opposite GTR station, Cedar Dale
No 2 – Town Hall, Columbus
No 3 – School house, Raglan

Whitby Township
No 1 – Toll gate house, gravel road lot 26th, 4th concession
No 2 – Town hall, Brooklin
No 3 – School house, Ashburn

No 1 – Union school house, lot 1, 2nd concession
No 2 – Orange hall, 8th con.
No 3 – Temperance hall, Duffins Creek
No 4 – Town Hall, Brougham
No 5 – School house, Claremont
No 6 – McCreight’s school house, lot 30 3rd concession
No 7 – Bentley’s school house, lot 32, 8th concession

No 1 – Mr Carswell’s office
No 2 – Town hall
No 3 – Pedlar’s Warehouse
No 4 – Smith & McGaw’s livery office

Town of Whitby
No 1 – Mechanic’s hall
No 2 – Skating rink, Dundas street
No 3 – Town hall


July 26


In Harmony on the 25th inst. Mr. Richard Whit, aged 57 years
The funeral will take place this afternoon, at 3 o’clock.

In Oshawa, on the 24th inst., Mrs. Robt. Fursdon, aged 49 years.
The funeral will take place this afternoon at half-past one.

Note: This year, 1872, was an election year, held from July 20 to October 12, 1872, the second federal election held in Canada.  It was commonplace for elections to last longer than one day; according to Elections Canada: “elections were held on different dates in different ridings. The system allowed the party in power to hold elections in a safe riding first, hoping in this way to influence the vote in constituencies less favourable to them. The system even enabled a candidate who lost in one riding to run again in another.”

The result of the election saw Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservatives returning to form a minority government, and TN Gibbs was re-elected to represent Ontario South.  The Ontario Reformer newspaper leaned left, strongly supporting the Liberal candidate Truman P. White; unfortunately, there are no known existing copies of the conservative paper, the Oshawa Vindicator, from this time.  It would have been an interesting exercise to compare how the two newspapers were reporting this election.

The Lee Family

By Alexandra P., Research & Publication Assistant

Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to visit the Northumberland County Archives to do some research, located in Cobourg’s Public Library. They hold a number of local records like photographs, maps, family records, as well as land registry documents. My hope was that by looking through the registry records I could trace the Lee family through the records.

Lee Wee C.I.9 certificate
Library and Archives, C.I.9 Certificates Issued in Victoria for people born outside of Canada (Mircofilm T-6043)

Lee Wee first arrived in Canada in 1903 and later moved to Cobourg in 1908 to open a hand-laundry. He and his brother are listed in the 1911 and 1921 Census as laundrymen, although no address is given. By going through the land registry records, I was able to find Wee Lee listed in the 1921 assessment rolls which show that he lived and worked in a rented building located at 17 Division Street. It also shows that he rented from a Mrs. Ellen Rooney.

That same year Wee Lee’s wife and two sons joined him in Cobourg. This would have been costly. In 1921, every person of Chinese descent wishing to immigrate to the country were required to pay a $500 Head Tax. This included women and children. Wee Lee’s wife Luey Shee and their children Chow and Leong each paid this tax; Chow was 8 years old and Leong was 13.

The Chinese were the only group in Canada required to pay a head tax. From 1885 until 1949, Chinese were required to register in the General Register of Chinese Immigration upon entering the country. If a person of Chinese descent wished to leave the country they had to get a C.I.9 Certificate and could only leave up to a maximum of 2 years or they were required to pay the Head Tax again. In 1923 the government excluded all Chinese immigration, separating many families.

The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Thomas Bouckley Collection

The Lee family decided to return to the village in 1928. Chow Lee married and had his first son that same year and decided to return Canada, going back to Cobourg. He made a few of trips back to China but in 1940 was forced to stay due to the Second World War. Chow returned to Canada in 1947, but his family stayed behind. Instead of settling in Cobourg, Chow went to Oshawa and opened Lee’s Laundry with his two brothers.

New Picture
The demolition of 18 Ontario Street, 1989; Oshawa Museum Archival Collection

Lee’s Laundry was located at 18 Ontario Street, between King and Bond Streets. It was a traditional hand-laundry and remained open until 1989. The building was torn down shortly after.


Lee, Jonathan. “A Story of Hardship and Success”

Hoe, Ben Seng. Enduring Hardship: The Chinese Laundry in Canada. University of Ottawa Press: Ottawa, 2003.

Library and Archives, C.I.9 Certificates Issued in Victoria for people born outside of Canada (Mircofilm T-6043)

Where the Streets Get Their Names – Coyston Drive

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

For several years,  the City of Oshawa has had a policy on naming new streets, with an emphasis on names paying tribute to Oshawa’s war dead and veterans.  These streets, as well as others which relate to World War I or World War II, are denoted with a poppy on the street sign.

If you’re driving around the Oshawa, southeast of the Rossland/Harmony intersection, you’ll encounter Coyston Drive and Court, named after Robert Henry Coyston who died in 1916.


Robert was born in London, England on 4 March 1892, to Arthur and Clara (Wells) Coyston.  The family, which included siblings William, George, Alice, Ethel, and Laura, immigrated to Canada in April 1906, settling in Oshawa, Cedardale specifically.  On October 30, 1913, he married Ethel Millicent Hudson, and on December 4, 1914, they welcomed their son, Albert Robert.  Less than two years after their marriage, Robert enlisted into the military; his attestation papers are dated 12 June 1915, and they reveal that Robert had previous experience, serving for eight years with the militia.  His attestation papers also tell us that he stood at 5 feet 7 inches in height, had a medium  complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair.

Robert arrived in France on Mar 16, 1916, serving with the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada. By all appearances, he was seeing success with the army, being promoted to sergeant on July 19, 1916.  A few short months later, Robert went missing in action during the Battle of Courcellette on October 8, 1916; he was later declared ‘Killed in Action.’  His wife received a memorial plaque and scroll, and his mother received a Memorial Cross.

After the end of WWI, the Adanac Military Cemetery was established in Miraumont, Departement de la Somme, Picardie, France, the name taken from spelling Canada backwards; as per the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, “graves were brought in from the Canadian battlefields around Courcelette and small cemeteries surrounding Miraumont,” and this is where Robert is laid to rest.

Robert Henry Coyston was one of 134 Oshawa citizens who went overseas in the First World War who never made it home.  His name is included on the monument in Memorial Park.  He was one of over 60,000 Canadians who were killed during the war.


This November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and is commemorated as Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth Nations.  May we always remember the sacrifices made by those who came before us.

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