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LOOKING BACK: Fisher River and the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic

todayDecember 23, 2020 81

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Open letter to FRCN Community Members from FRCN Leadership

Today, we find ourselves living with many restrictions which have created a stressful environment not only in our homes but as a whole in the community. Please know that you are not alone. We are all feeling the strain of the unknown. Thankfully, we may see an end in sight with the announcement of a vaccine. But there is no given timeframe as to when it will reach us. For now, we will continue to work together to create a safe community.

We would like to thank everyone for following the safety protocols and restrictions in place to ensure our families are not exposed. We know the sacrifices people are making by not visiting family and friends especially during these difficult times. We feel your sadness and heartache as we also have family we would love to visit and hug as well. We understand the loneliness our off-reserve community members are feeling.

We hope that the present situation will soon improve enough so everyone can come home.
As we isolate in our homes, we have proven, many times over, of our strong commitment to keeping our loved ones safe. We know when we work together nothing is too large to overcome. In the early 1900’s, the Spanish Flu was widespread within Canada and within Fisher River.

We are reminded of this time as we find ourselves in a very similar situation. Our community was devastated by the effects of this pandemic but continued to move forward. Just as we are now, our ancestors worked hard to limit the spread of the disease.

Everyone knew what needed to be done and they all pitched in. They did their best to ensure that no one went without during this time. Our history has taught us that we are resilient. We will overcome all obstacles set before us as long as we work together. Our ancestors built this community together. We must work together to ensure it remains intact for all community members and for our future generations.

Please take some time to read the attached article which talks about the impact of the Spanish Flu and how it affected the people of Fisher River.
Indigenous peoples in present-day Manitoba have endured many waves of devastating disease epidemics going back to the arrival of the first Europeans over 350 years ago. In the earliest years, we had no immunity to foreign diseases and scholars believe that 50% to 90% of the original peoples of the Americas were wiped-out soon after contact. How our ancestors managed to survive these epidemics can teach us a lot about how we can get through the Covid-19 that has hit our community, on and off reserve.

Back in the early 1990s we interviewed over 30 Elders. A few of them had personal memories of the 1918-1919 Influenza epidemic or memories handed down to them from their parents or grandparents. The memories of our Elders are shared here along with information gathered from books, articles and archival records from that time period. This paper tells the story of the arrival of the flu, the impact it had on the community, and community resilience.

The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic was the deadliest global pandemic to hit First Nation communities in recent history. One-third to one-half of the total world population (1 billion at that time) were infected during that 12-month period, and 50 million to 100 million people around the world died from it. The influenza was highly contagious. It was transmitted from an infected person to others through coughing, sneezing and even heavy breathing or through touching things that were infected. The moisture in human breath carried the virus. The incubation period for the virus was only 24 to 48 hours, so a person exhibited symptoms shortly after being infected. Because it affected the respiratory system about 20% of those infected also caught pneumonia. Studies show that the side effects, like pneumonia and bronchitis, attacked people weakened by influenza (Lux, 1992). About half of those with the Influenza and pneumonia, did not survive. In Canada, 1 out of every 6 people caught the virus, and by the end of the pandemic, it had killed about 55,000 Canadians.

The influenza broke out towards the end of the first World War. Scientists believe it originated in the USA and was carried overseas by American troops. Soldiers returning home from Europe spread the disease throughout the world. In Canada it arrived on ships then made its way across the country by railway (Berndardt, 2020). The first outbreak of the influenza in Manitoba happened in Winnipeg in late September 1918 and fatalities started on October 3rd. Disease epidemics spread along train lines, roads and water routes. It arrived at Beren’s River near the end of October 1918 by way of the steamship called the Wolverine (Slonim, 2004).

They say that the crew was infected and within 3 days of docking at Beren’s River almost all the people there were “overcome by the flu” (Herring, 1993, p. 84).

From Beren’s River it made its way to Fisher River so quickly that the first fatality occurred here on October 30th 1918 (Slonim, 2004).

“1912c Wolverine on Red River,” Red River North Heritage, gallery/

Almost all the families were affected by the epidemic either in their immediate households or their extended families. Chief Joseph Everett and his wife Sarah lost an infant daughter, Nora Elizabeth, who was just over a year old. Counsellor Philip Sinclair and his wife Alice lost one of their 5 month old twin sons, Stewart Nelson, while his twin brother Ernest Stanley survived.

A few families experienced devastating losses. William Mason became a widower again with the passing of his 2nd wife Rubina (Bradburn). He also lost two sons, Russell Gordon (4 years old) and Norman (2 months old), as well as grandson Kenneth (6 months old). Another family, Maurice and Sarah Bouchie had two sons, 8 year old Alex and 6 year old Mathew James. Maurice Bouchie was the adult son of William Bouchie and Madeline Swampy. Sarah Bushie was born at Rabbit point, the daughter of James Crate Sr. and Betsy Bouleau. This young family was among the first to be taken by the influenza. Maurice passed away on November 1st, then Sarah on November 4th and the following day, November 5th, their son Alex passed on. Their only remaining son Mathew James was adopted by his grandfather, James Crate Sr., but he passed away in January of 1921 of pneumonia.

When the 1918-1919 Influenza epidemic tore through Fisher River, the community lost 38 members out of a total population of 455. Francis Stevens, the wife of the Reverend Fred Stevens, wrote that there was one day when her husband buried seven people and one of the graves contained two bodies. The late Aurelia Thickfoot was born in 1915 and heard that same story when she was young. There was one big grave they put people in, she said, but she and others did not know where that spot was in the graveyard (2007).

The late Norman V. Murdock was born in 1911. When the flu epidemic hit Fisher River in November of 1918, he was about 7 years old. He was interviewed in 1991 and remembered that time well. He and his brother Roy were the only ones in their immediate family who did not get sick and those two little boys struggled to care for and feed their parents and seven siblings. Norman recalled, that he and his brother did all the cooking, “we had chickens and pluck them up and cook them for our dad, we’d feed them.

The only ones who didn’t have that flu, at that time, ya, we never had it. My dad had it, he suffered…”

Fatalities by Age
Under 9 years old 19
Age 10 – 20 years 6
Age 21 – 40 years 3
Aged 40+ years 3
Age unknown 6


“Guidance on how to prevent Influenza, published in the Illustrated Current News, on Oct. 18, 1918. (National Library of Medicine),” (Berndardt, 2020, p. 4).

One thing that was different about the Fisher River experience in the flu epidemic is that most of the fatalities were infants and young children. This is a very different than what other Canadians experienced. The Influenza generally targeted healthy people in their prime of 20 to 40 years old, more than it targeted the young and old ones. In Fisher River the opposite was true. Again, studies on the living conditions help explain why so many young ones were lost.

Even before the epidemic Fisher River already had a high infant mortality rate. The major cause of young deaths was acute respiratory infections. A study done on these infant deaths explains that respiratory infections among infants was high for a couple of reasons. First, the move from living outdoors to living in crowded poorly ventilated log houses caused respiratory problems. The second reason was malnutrition. Malnutrition impairs the immune system and makes a person more susceptible to infectious disease and prolonged sickness. Malnutrition is linked to the increased reliance on store bought foods (white flour, pork, and sugar) and depletion of game and other bush foods. Infants transitioning “from breast milk to solid food are especially susceptible to…the effects of malnutrition and infectious diseases” (Moffit & Herring, 1999: 1828). Between 1910 and 1939, one out of every five infants born in Fisher River never made it to their first birthday (Moffat and Herring, 1999). So when the Influenza arrived, the little ones were already vulnerable.

There was no cure for the Influenza at that time, but medical people understood enough about how it worked and how it spread that they launched public awareness campaigns to help people protect themselves. Governments also enforced wearing masks in public. Posters like these were circulated all over.

When the epidemic struck, the Reverend Fred Stevens was one of the first to catch it and was too sick to do more than hand out medication and officiate at funerals (Stevens, n.d.). But a medical team sent in by Indian Affairs provided medical supplies, relief, and care for a short while (Slonim, 2004). Reverend Stevens was not a medical doctor, but he had first aid training and looked after the community medicine dispensary at the manse. He also had access to information like these posters to help the people protect themselves.

Fisher River had fewer fatalities than a lot of other First Nations on Lake Winnipeg. Norway House, for example, experienced 107 deaths by January 22, 1919 (Herring, 1993; Slonim, 2004). There were a few studies done to find out why Fisher River had fewer deaths than Norway House. The researchers studied the living conditions and how people made a living at both places. They explained that Norway House had more outside traffic because of the HBC post, people were more mobile, and they were experiencing food shortages and plunging temperatures when the Influenza struck there in early December 1918. On the other hand, Fisher River people were more isolated from outside contact, fewer Fisher River people had to travel long distances to make a living, and they were not suffering from the kind of food shortages their northern relatives were, because of their farming. They had livestock and garden foods stored (Slonim, 2004).

“The Winnipeg Evening Tribune of Nov. 4, 1918, lists the methods the city took to try to contain the flu. (Winnipeg Tribune Archives, University of Manitoba),” (Bernhardt, 2020, p. 7)

The people of Fisher River also had experiences with disease epidemics in their lifetimes. Many lived through or heard stories about the smallpox epidemics that swept through Lake Winnipeg region in 1876-1877 and 1905. In both epidemics they were quarantined and learned that they had a better chance of survival when they isolated themselves.

The people also had traditional medicines they relied on. The old people we interviewed believed that traditional medicines was a major reason their fatality rates were low. The late Frank Bradburn was born in December of 1918 when the Influenza Epidemic was in full force and he was told stories about how it killed many people. “A lot of people died around here” he remembered, but it could have been much worse if the people didn’t have traditional medicine. One of the medicines they used was sikâko oil (skunk oil). Late Frank explained that with a small wooden matchstick “they stabbed that thing, that skunk scent, and they stir that water, and drink that…It killed that flu. It’s a strong medicine you know” (1991). The late Aurelia Thickfoot said her dad and them would kill a skunk, take the stink bag, and dip a tiny bit on a stick into a cup of boiling water, then they drank it. They kept the oil safe in a glass sealer. She said, “People now a days laugh about the skunk but they don’t really know how powerful that skunk was” (2006).

The 1918-1919 Influenza came in three waves. Spring 1918, Autumn 1918 and Winter 1919. Fisher River experienced two waves. When it first struck the community at the end of October 1918, it lasted until the end of December, during which time the community lost 31 people. The second wave started in February 1919 and lasted until July 1919. The fatalities in the second wave were much fewer, we only lost 6 more people. The last person taken by the influenza was 3 year old Alex Andrew Mallett, in November 1919.

The 1918-1919 influenza was a global pandemic, much like the COVID-19 we are currently facing today. Luckily today we know a lot more about how flu viruses work, and even though there is no cure yet, we have a lot of information available on how to protect our communities. It is a blessing that our ancestors learned from their ancestors how infectious these foreign diseases could be. They went out of their way to help each other. Suffering families were provided for, relatives took in children, people practiced social isolation. They wore masks in public. They worked very hard to protect the community and we can learn from them. They kept the fatalities down because they isolated, they practiced good hygiene, they cared for one another, and they used traditional medicine to help fight the virus.

Winona Wheeler

NOTE: The names of those who were taken by the Influenza were compiled from the United Church burial records and the Treaty Annuity pay sheets. I also consulted the United Church baptism and marriage records to locate the names of the parents of infants and children who passed on. The church records were kept by the Rev’d Fred Stevens who was the minister and missionary at Fisher River from

  • 1907 to 1939. His records are not complete and there are some errors, but when combined with the other sources they help us reconstruct what happened in the past so we can continue to tell the stories.
  • Bernhardt, Darren. “How the Spanish flu compares to COVID-19: Lessons learned, answers still being pursued,” CBC News, posted April 11, 2020. 1.5523410.
  • Fisher River Oral History Project. Frank Bradburn, interviewed by Neil Murdock, 21 June 1991.
  • Interview transcript. Fisher River Cree Nation.
  • Fisher River Oral History Project. Norman V. Murdock, interviewed by S. Murdock August 19, 1991.
  • Interview transcript. Fisher River Cree Nation.
  • Fisher River Oral History Project. Aurelia Thickfoot, interviewed by Winona Wheeler and Verna Kirkness. October 26, 2006. Interview transcript. Peguis First Nation.
  • Herring, D. Ann. “’There Were Young People and Old People and Babies Dying Every Week’: The 19180-1919 Influenza Epidemic at Norway House.” Ethnohistory 41, 1 (1993): 73-105.
  • Library and Archives Canada. Department of Indian Affairs. “Treaty Annuity Pay Sheet, Fisher River Band, June 19-20, 1919.”
  • Lux, Maureen. “Prairie Indians and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” Native Studies Review 8, 1(1992): 23-33.
  • Moffat, Tina and Ann Herring. “The historical roots of high rates of infant death in Aboriginal communities in Canada in the early twentieth century: the case of Fisher River, Manitoba.” Social Science and Medicine 48 (1999): 1821-1832.
  • Slonim, Karen. “Differences in the Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at Norway House and Fisher River, Manitoba,” (University of Manitoba, MA Thesis, 2004).
  • United Church of Canada Archives. Francis G. Stevens. “My Experience Living on a Mission.” Unpublished autobiography. University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg. N.D.
  • United Church of Canada Archives. Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. (1918-1951) Fisher River Burial Register.
  • (1888-1903) Fisher River Marriage Register (1911-1920) Fisher River Marriage Register (1908-1929) Fisher River Baptism Register

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Fisher River Cree Nation is a community in which our history, language, traditions, and culture are paramount to who we are as a people. We will protect and maintain the spirit and intent of the treaties and our inherent rights. Fisher River will be a self-sustaining progressive community with a strong and accountable government. We will provide an environment where all people are healthy, safe, and respected.