Pandemic of Past and Present

In 1918, Alberta was the only province to implement mandatory masking laws for people in public spaces to help stop the flu pandemic.  This time around in Ontario, mask laws have been implemented by most municipalities for all indoor public spaces.

Canada is no stranger to the threat of large infectious disease outbreaks.  Throughout history, people on the land we now call Canada experienced numerous diseases that threatened their ways of life.  Cholera, Tuberculosis, 1918 Influenza, Polio, Scarlet Fever, Yellow Fever, Diphtheria, SARS, MERS – to name a few.  The way we manage COVID-19 is largely based on what we have done in the past.  While our strategies may have evolved and our personal protective equipment may be more effective than other PPE used in the past, there are some things that remain common factors in preventing the spread of disease.  Just like the Influenza of 1918, we rely largely on warning signs, mask wearing, and quarantines during COVID-19 to stay safe.


A significant amount of information about COVID-19 comes by the way of the internet and social media.  However, we continue to rely largely on our public health units to regulate public spaces with signage.  In 1918, the Provincial boards of health put up signs in public areas to inform people of the need for face coverings and quarantines to help prevent the spread of the Spanish Influenza [Above, left].  Over the past few months in Ontario, municipal public health units have been rolling out mandatory mask regulations in public spaces.  In Toronto, and other communities throughout the province, signs informing public of this temporary bylaw are present on billboards, bus stops, and in the windows of every storefront [Above, right].  Other signs remind the public of the closures of park and other areas to practice social distancing.


It has been a proven fact since the late 19th century that face masks provide an important boundary between people to prevent the transference of diseases that are spread via respiratory droplets.  The 1918 Influenza raised a number of issues about regulating the wearing of masks; while some professions in the public eye wore masks, like nurses, doctors, and transportation workers, Ontario never made face masks mandatory to be worn in public.[i]  In 1918, Alberta was the only province to enforce mandatory masking laws for people in public spaces [Above, left].[ii]  Today in Ontario, mask laws have been implemented by municipalities for all indoor public spaces [Above, right].  However, across Canada, just like during the Influenza of 1918, there is no national standard for wearing masks.  In British Colombia, doctors are demanding the implementation of mask laws, but none yet exist.[iii]  Across Alberta, some regions like Calgary and Banff have mandatory masking laws in indoor places, but this is not required in every region.[iv]


The concept of quarantine was prominent before, during, and after the 1918 Influenza – even dating back hundreds of years.  This past spring, Margaret Atwood reflected upon her time “Growing up in Quarantineland” in a special article to the Globe & Mail, discussing the numerous quarantines that kept Canadians at home throughout the 20th century when they had contracted infectious diseases [Above, left].[v]  Quarantines were imposed during the 1918 Influenza epidemic, the outbreaks of Polio, and as a result of Scarlet Fever.  Warnings were posted on the doors of those infected and those who were ill were issued stay at home orders.  During COVID-19, these regulations have become tightened.  In Canada, people are required to self-isolate for 14 days upon re-entry to the country; some provinces, like Nova Scotia, also require this for those travelling from province to province.  If someone has COVID-19, they are required to stay within their home until they test negative for the virus and have no symptoms.  Even if someone suspects they could have been exposed to the virus or has any symptoms, they too must stay home [Above, right].[vi] 

Although the current coronavirus pandemic seems incredibly new and different than anything else we have experienced, it really isn’t.  We have been here before and we will likely be here again.  If we want to make it out anytime soon though, we must keep in mind the lessons learned from the past.  That is following protocols: wearing masks and doing our best to minimize further spread of the disease.

About the Authour

Jessica Lanziner

(Margaret Angus Research Fellow, 2020)

Jessica Lanziner is currently in the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto and an alumna from Queen’s University, holding a Bachelor of Fine Art and Art History. With previous positions like work at the Uxbridge Historical Centre, Jessica has had the opportunity to work with collections of dental materials from a local early 20th century dental offices, igniting her interest in the history of healthcare in Canada.  


[i] MacDougall, Heather. “Toronto’s Health Department in Action: Influenza in 1918 and SARS in 2003” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 62, no. 1 (2006): 68. doi:10.1093/jhmas/jrl042.

[ii] Henrickson, Ashley. “Official Response”, curatorial text from The Pandemic at Home: The 1918-1919 Flu at the Galt Museum & Archives. June 2 – October 18, 2018, Lethbridge, AB.

[iii] Chan, Adam. “B.C. doctors call for mandatory public mask use”, CTV News Vancouver Island. August 5 2020.

[iv] Rieger, Sarah. “Calgary to make masks mandatory in indoor public spaces as of Aug. 1”, CBC News Calgary, July 21 2020.

[v] Atwood, Margaret. “Growing up in Quarantineland: Childhood nightmares in the age of germs prepared me for coronavirus” The Globe and Mail, March 28 2020.

[vi] Government of Ontario. “COVID-19: Stop the Spread”, COVID-19. Last updated August 13 2020. Accessed August 18 2020.

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