‘We all ex­pected to die’

New book about Span­ish in­fluenza in Labrador sheds new light on what hap­pened

The Aurora (Labrador City) - - Editorial - BY EVAN CAREEN

Writ­ing and talk­ing about Labrador is noth­ing new to Anne Budgell.

Budgell, a Nunatsiavut ben­e­fi­ciary, is the child of two Labrado­ri­ans and lived in both Happy Val­ley-Goose Bay and Labrador City in her younger days be­fore em­bark­ing on a decades long ca­reer with the CBC.

She was also one of the di­rec­tors of a doc­u­men­tary “Last Days of Okak” pro­duced in 1985. Now, she’s writ­ten a book about Okak and what hap­pened there, ti­tled “We all ex­pected to die: Span­ish In­fluenza in Labrador, 1918-1919.”

“The doc­u­men­tary re­ally only fo­cuses on the events in Okak when peo­ple got sick, when peo­ple died, and then im­me­di­ately af­ter that,” she told The Labradorian. “What I wanted to do in this book was re­search the story and find out what led up to that. How the flu got there and what hap­pened after­wards. I wanted to find out if the gov­ern­ment of New­found­land ever do any­thing or say any­thing about this flu dis­as­ter that hap­pened in Labrador.”

She said in re­search­ing the book for the last three years she scoured gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, di­aries, letters, af­fi­davits, and news­pa­per re­ports and found out a lot that had never been pub­lished.

“I did not know ev­ery­thing about this story, not by a long shot,” she said. “The film fo­cused on ‘we got sick, peo­ple died and some sur­vived.’ It was telling the story of a few weeks of what hap­pened in Okak. What I’m putting in the book is a lot more than that. My book is also about what hap­pened in Sand­wich Bay and Lake Melville, not just what hap­pened on the north coast.”

The mis­sion­ary ves­sel Har­mony brought the flu to He­bron first, Budgell said, and then to Okak, but then New­found­land mail and freight ship Sag­ona brought the flu to Cartwright and Rigo­let and it spread from there into Lake Melville and all around Sand­wich Bay.

Budgell said, with help from Them Days mag­a­zine, they found there were over 70 peo­ple who died in Sand­wich Bay from in­fluenza, and there were only about 320 peo­ple who lived in the bay, a big part of pop­u­la­tion.

She found a few ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers who had fallen prey to the ill­ness, which she said is com­mon for peo­ple in most of Labrador, few fam­i­lies were not im­pacted.

The names of all who were lost are be­ing pub­lished in her book and in a spe­cial edi­tion of Them Days. What hap­pened in Labrador isn’t the whole story, she said, and that’s what she was look­ing to find.

“I wanted to stitch this all to­gether and con­nect the dots that were missing,” she said. “I wanted to con­nect the sto­ries, not only the north coast to Sand­wich Bay story, but also the New­found­land piece. Th­ese peo­ple were re­spon­si­ble for Labrador but they never cared about Labrador, they never took care of Labrador.

“They thought of Labrador as a place you go to fish in the sum­mer­time and oth­er­wise they didn’t think about it at all.”

There’s a chap­ter in the book ti­tled ‘Let them die,’ which Budgell said ref­er­ences a re­mark al­legedly made when the New­found­land gov­ern­ment was given word of the pan­demic in Labrador.

The gov­ern­ment of the day was asked to send help by way of a mes­sage out of Sand­wich Bay on the last ves­sel that left to go back to New­found­land. No help was sent.

The man who brought the mes­sage to the gov­ern­ment was Ralph Par­sons, Budgell said, the brother of the man­ager of the Hud­son’s Bay store in Cartwright at that time.

“Ralph Par­sons had lived in Labrador him­self, knew the peo­ple, knew the sit­u­a­tion, and he went to gov­ern­ment and asked for help,” she said. “He was told no, it was too late, couldn’t get coal for his ship and all the rest of it.

“He knew that was ex­cuses and he told a news­pa­per ed­i­tor in St. John’s that a man at­tend­ing that meet­ing when he asked for help said, ‘Let them die, it’ll save us the trou­ble of feed­ing them.’”

The rea­son the pan­demic spread so quickly in Labrador, Budgell said, was the lack of health care.

Okak, the crown jewel of the Mo­ra­vian set­tle­ments on the north coast of Labrador, had a hos­pi­tal but no doc­tor.

She said when peo­ple started get­ting sick, every­body got sick and there was no­body to take care of any­body. No­body to put wood in the stove, no­body could bring wa­ter in for peo­ple to drink so peo­ple died, not only of flu and pneu­mo­nia, but also from hy­pother­mia and de­hy­dra­tion be­cause there as no one to take care of peo­ple.

“It was 100 years ago, peo­ple didn’t know about im­mu­nity, they didn’t know that you could be sick and not look it, they didn’t know how in­fec­tion trav­elled,” she said. “Peo­ple were try­ing to find out why all th­ese peo­ple died and they came up with the­o­ries about how the Inuit must be car­ri­ers, they must have been dirty, they must have been sin­ning against God.

“They kept find­ing all kinds of rea­sons to blame them for get­ting this sick­ness, which was world­wide. This is the thing that pisses me off so much is that peo­ple were blamed for this.”

She wanted that cor­rected on the his­tor­i­cal record, she said, which is one of the rea­sons writ­ing this book was so im­por­tant to her. This is her sec­ond book about Labrador, the first be­ing “Dear Every­body: A woman’s jour­ney from Park Av­enue to a Labrador Trap Line”, a book about the life of Man­hat­tan so­cialite Bar­bara Mundy, a vol­un­teer with the Gren­fell Mis­sion in the 1940’s.

The of­fi­cial launch of the book was held in St. John’s Nov. 28. There will be an­other launch in Happy Val­ley-Goose Bay in De­cem­ber.


Anne Budgell


Anne Budgell’s lat­est book, ‘We all ex­pected to die: Span­ish In­fluenza in Labrador, 1918-1919,’ is avail­able now.

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