When the Spanish flu appeared in Ontario around the fall of 1918, volunteer organizations played a crucial role in delivering social services. The international pandemic killed 55,000 people in Canada — nearly 9,000 of them in Ontario — and an estimated 50 million worldwide, and hospitals and public-health departments were overwhelmed, even as schools, theatres, and businesses were closed.
In Toronto, the Neighbourhood Workers’ Association headquarters, located on Yonge Street across from where the Eaton Centre stands today, was ground zero for the dispensing of emergency food and medical supplies. With the help of a huge city map dotted with blue tacks denoting 24 supply depots, a large effort was coordinated. Thousands of volunteers mobilized to deliver food, medical supplies, and nursing care to households across the city.
Throughout the pandemic, which was deadliest over a 13-week period beginning in September 1918, the NWA oversaw the work of dozens of voluntary organizations, including the YMCA, University Settlement, Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and St. Christopher’s House. The collective effort helped roughly 500 families a day. The IODE, for example, operated a kitchen at what is now the Central Technical School near Bathurst and Harbord streets, sending out 675 quarts of custard, 899 quarts of broth, 689 quarts of gruel, and 147 quarts of lemonade by the end of October 1918.
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Even the documentation of Spanish-flu cases and households needing help was a grassroots initiative. The Rotary Club of Toronto, a volunteer organization, enlisted the help of the city’s postmen and printed 30,000 cards for them to take door to door to collect the required information. On one postal route, a postman found a household with four adults and eight children — all sick with the flu. Within an hour, volunteers from the NWA had delivered hot soup and other food. In a letter to the association, a woman whose husband was too sick to work wrote, “When I received the custard and broth sent from you half an hour ago, I felt that I must spare a few minutes to thank you.”
The scale of volunteer organization is one of the distinguishing features of how Ontario managed during the 1918 epidemic, says Heather MacDougall, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo and an expert on public-health history. She says the volunteer approach stemmed from citizens mobilization during the First World War; by September 1918, Canadians had endured four years of sacrifice and food rationing. “Women’s groups were already established to roll bandages and knit socks, and so they just turned these efforts to dealing with the flu outbreak,” she says. In Hamilton, she notes, 150 members of the IODE took over the kitchen in the First Methodist Church and turned out 1,100 meals a day, every day, for 11 weeks.
Mark Humphries, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and author of The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada, agrees that the volunteerism reflected how social services were delivered at the time. “We have to keep in mind that there was no socialized medicine in 1918,” he says. “Most average ordinary working Canadians didn't have a family doctor to go to, because they didn't have money to pay a family doctor. And medical care for those people was usually provided by a charity.”
As nurses and doctors fell ill, Toronto’s public-health department increasingly depended on volunteers. Humphries says that getting food to the ill was critical: “For the vast majority of people, the biggest threat of the flu pandemic was losing your job because you were too sick for work, and, if you lost your job, there was no social-safety net. You didn't eat, and you couldn’t heat your home.”
Volunteer organizations were formed in almost every city and town across the province. Hundreds of women joined the Sisters of Service, a group created by the Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary, to provide care for the sick. They received three days of intensive training and then were given a uniform and an Ontario S.O.S. badge, and assigned a family to care for.
In Kingston, 156 women volunteered for the Sisters of Service, undertaking 1,255 home visits to 200 families, according to a Queen’s Alumni Review article by Andrew Belyea. North Bay’s Elk Lodge was converted into an emergency hospital and staffed by volunteers who joined the Sisters. Teachers, who, because the schools were closed, weren’t working, set up and operated the hospital’s kitchen. A citizens’ committee was established in Belleville after three Grand Trunk employees died of the flu. When the hospitals in Niagara Falls filled up, local churches stepped in and outfitted their basements with cots. Volunteers provided most of the care for the sick in Trenton, where there were 500 cases of flu at one time, no hospital, and only three doctors. And, in Stratford, the Sisters of Loretta, who ran a girls’ school, sent the students home and turned their convent into a hospital, says MacDougall: “And after all those years of teaching, nothing compared to the way the people in Stratford felt about them after that.”
MacDougall says it’s difficult to compare the volunteer effort of 1918 with the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic, because of the extent to which volunteer services were established then. “They were in better place to handle it then than we are now, because we're creating all this [citizen response] in many ways from scratch.” As to whether volunteer organizations will contribute on the scale they did a century ago, MacDougall says it’s too early to tell: “The answer will come later in the outbreak, when there are many more cases and more obvious need.”