QUINN’S QUIPS: Another pandemic for the history books

Coronavirus is the third pandemic to hit the Alberni Valley in more than a century

The Victory Joy Ride on Nov. 11, 1918 was the Albernis’ spontaneous response to the end of the First World War, and took place despite a ban on public gatherings because of the Spanish Flu epidemic. This photo is one of nearly 24,000 in the Alberni Valley Museum’s collection. Many of them can be viewed online. See more at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com/ (PN00017/ Alberni Valley Museum)

The coronavirus that has spread so quickly around the world has turned attention back to the last time residents in the Alberni Valley experienced a pandemic.

In October 1918, the Spanish influenza, or flu, reached Vancouver Island in Victoria. Three weeks later, the flu arrived in Port Alberni along with measures such as public health orders to close theatres, dance halls and pool rooms. People who became sick were told to stay home, others were told not to go visiting, the hospital filled up with people suffering from the flu, and retired nurses were pressed into service again. Soon, death notices became more prevalent in the local newspaper.

Alberni Valley Museum manager Shelley Harding found a chapter on the flu epidemic in Jan Peterson’s book The Albernis, but there wasn’t much else written about that era easily accessible in the archives.

While the Spanish Flu epidemic is most talked about, it isn’t the only pandemic that had such a serious effect on our community. The other doesn’t get as much attention, and that is the small pox pandemic of 1862. This one wiped out more than half the Indigenous population of coastal British Columbia after a steamship landed in Victoria with a load of miners—one of whom had the insidious disease.

A general quarantine was not put in place, Indigenous people were kicked out of the city and within the year, 30,000 people from nations up the coast had died. To this day, many consider this particular pandemic to have been genocide against Indigenous people because different measures could have prevented the spread of small pox.

Finding information on the Spanish Flu in Port Alberni from 100-plus years ago is a challenge, because people weren’t writing about it except for reports found in newspaper archives. I will be working on a feature about a local man whose great-grandfather revealed day-to-day life dealing with the pandemic in a series of journal entries from 1918. I’ll wager when he was writing his journals he was doing it as a chronicle for his own life, and never expected how valuable his observations would be a century later.

There is a project happening through Literacy Alberni Society called the Pandemic Postcard Project, which aims to leave us with a better written record of the coronavirus. A downloadable PDF of the postcard is available on the Literacy Alberni Facebook page, and postcards can be dropped off in the makeshift mailbox outside their office at 5100-E Tebo Avenue or mailed to The Pandemic Postcard Project, P.O. Box 1146, Station Main, Port Alberni, B.C. V9Y 7L9.

My favourite postcard so far (they are posting some on Facebook) is from a woman in Dawson Creek, B.C., who wrote about the flour shortage and shared a Second World War recipe for hovis bread from her husband’s great-aunt, who lived at Sproat Lake. The trend for bread-making and the run on yeast may seem like a joke now, but 100 years from now it will give people an idea of what we were thinking and doing.

The AV News is also collecting images of how people have spent their time during the pandemic in a special Day in the Life–Pandemic Edition. Send us a photo by Tuesday, May 12 of an activity you or your family have done to pass the time while self-isolating and we will consider it for our special section. Your photo can be from any day during the pandemic; don’t forget to send names and some details about what you’re doing—homeschooling, chalk drawings, home haircuts, baking bread, etc. This special edition will be published May 20.

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News’ editor.

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