- We All Expected to Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918–1919 by Anne Budgell
Spanish Influenza, Canadian medical history, Indigenous Health, Colonialism
The historiography of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic is rich and includes works of a grand sweep that trace the global spread of this disease; national studies that document its ravages in particular countries; and microstudies that examine in detail its impact and aftermath in a selected locale. While We All Expected to Die: [End Page 236] Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918–1919 by Anne Budgell sits neatly in the last category of microstudies, it might also be construed as a national study owing to the peculiar geography and history of Labrador.
The large, desolate, and remote land mass constituting the region of Labrador (known colloquially as “The Big Land”) is part of mainland Canada and abuts Quebec, but is under the provincial jurisdiction of Newfoundland on the far north-eastern coast of North America. In 1918, the British island colony/Dominion of Newfoundland largely ignored the existence of Labrador despite its legal responsibility to do so: any importance of Labrador to the people in the capital city of St John’s was due to the spoils exploited from its rich fishing and hunting grounds for cod and salmon, along with seal and animal fur pelts. Labrador had no government representation or presence in any form, for it was a domain more or less under the jurisdiction of German Moravian missionary-merchants in the northern parts who settled there in the 1770s, British and American physicians working under the auspices of the International Grenfell Association (IGA—a medical and quasi-religious mission) in the south, and factors/traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company scattered elsewhere. Collectively but informally, the persons retained by these various agencies managed the affairs of the permanent and transient inhabitants of Labrador who consisted of “white” settlers, Indigenous peoples including the Inuit and the Innu known collectively at the time as “Eskimos,” and persons of mixed European and Indigenous heritage who were identified as Métis. Many Indigenous people converted to Christianity, and also learned to speak, read, and write in both English and German. Generally, relations between all groups of people were cordial and non- confrontational. (Excepting tension brought on in 1914 affecting the Moravians who were German nationals living on British territory; an official modus vivendi regarding their neutrality was worked out, however.)
Labrador, cut off from the outside world as it was, maintained its connection to mainstream civilization primarily through coastal steamers and schooners bringing food supplies and other necessities for living; mail; and outdated news. The arrival of these vessels occasioned great excitement and mirth for everyone as crew and local residents interacted when first unloading goods, then later when engaging in impromptu social activities. Such behavior was exhibited with the arrival in November 1918 of the SS Harmony in Okak, Hebron, and other remote coastal Labrador settlements; the ship had last been in St John’s where the flu had already broken out among residents there, including those who would become crew members. Within days of the departure of the ship from its ports of call in Labrador any such feelings of jubilation turned to mass despair and fear. We All Expected to Die chronicles in almost daily detail the spread of Spanish influenza from Harmony crew members to European/white settlers and Indigenous peoples alike.
Budgell’s narrative is not just about charting many people sickening and dying, however; it is a vivid, terrifying account of the destruction and more or less total annihilation of communities due to disease. Although Newfoundland itself suffered more numerous flu-related deaths in total, the death rates in Labrador were much [End Page 237] higher—71 per cent. More significantly, because those who died first were often parents still caring for their children and also grandparents, younger and older generations in a family might also die not from the flu but from exposure and/or starvation...