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Canada’s overlooked pandemic

Ten years after the well-documented Spanish Flu started in 1918, there was a much lesser-known scourge.

March 25th, 2020

The aptly named Hudson's Bay steamship S.S. Distributor unloading more than cargo in 1928.

For the Dene and Inuvialuit in the NWT in 1928, “the white man introduced them to a new way to die” when an unknown infection was brought from the south, on a steamship, killing those with little immunity.

A mysterious virus–possibly the vestiges of the so-called Spanish Flu–was brought to the Northwest Territories on the steamship S.S. Distributor according to Dene filmmaker, Raymond Yakeleya, who interviewed a number of Sahtu and Gwich’in Dene elders for his 1978 film for CBC North, We Remember.

Now those filmed interviews have been transcribed into English and in Gwich’in Dene language for a new book, We Remember the Coming of the White Man: Dene Elders tell the history of their times (Durvile Publications & UpRoute $37.50) by Elizabeth Yakeleya & Sarah Simon et al, edited by Sarah Stewart. It is due April 21st.

[The First Nations of British Columbia have similar stories of being devastated by disease. Particularly hard hit were the Haida on what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Travel to Haida Gwaii is now severely restricted during the current, international pandemic.]


Filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya with the new book that contains the reminiscences of his grandmother, Elizabeth Yakeleya. Lorene Shyba photo.

The chapters of We Remember are the transcripts of ten elders, including Yakeleya’s grandmother Elizabeth, recalling major events in their lives. They tell of the early days of fur trading and missionaries; dismay about the way oil and uranium discoveries and pipelines were handled on their land; and a flu pandemic that ravaged their communities, eerily similar to today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

In those days, the major form of transportation was the steamship and, in the summer of 1928 the Hudson’s Bay paddle steamer SS Distributor sailed its annual supply route down the Mackenzie River. At each stop, along with the delivery of supplies, a virus was unleashed.

For the Dene and Inuvialuit along the waterway who hadn’t built up an immunity, the illness was new. Previously, their deaths were by old age, accidents, and violence but never the flu says Yakeleya.

With the spread of flu, “the white man introduced them to a new way to die,” Yakeleya recalls his uncle Johnny Lennie telling him.

“That’s what (my) Uncle Johnny said. For that whole week as a young man, all he did was dig graves and all the young boys and men would do that as they were bringing more bodies to the graveyard.” Johnny Lennie was age 13 at the time of the deathly scourge.

When the illness arrived in Yakeleya’s home community of Tulita (formerly known as Fort Norman) 50 elders died in seven days. The disease seemed to hit the community slowly, then all at once as the illness multiplied.

In the book, Yakeleya’s grandmother, Elizabeth recalls: “In 1928, after the steamboat left, we weren’t expecting sickness. An old man had it first but we didn’t realize the flu had started.”

Elizabeth Yakeleya says that they were just getting ready to leave one of their summer hunting camps when suddenly, “everyday people died.”

“The flu didn’t last long, not even two weeks, but it wiped us out. Some people came here from Franklin to trade at the Hudson Bay here. On their way back home, some of them died too.”

Here the steamship can be seen in the distance, top left, not far from community housing.

Another elder from a different community, Jim Sittichinli, remembers, “It was almost a week after the boat left that people started to get sick. I think about 50 people died in Fort McPherson within a week. There was no doctor.

“Towards the end, people were dying too fast and only a few people were able to dig graves. It was during July and they had to bury them right away. You can’t leave them out.

“We used to dig a grave for six people and we had to bury them without a coffin. We put two coffins, one at each end, and put the ones with no coffins in the middle and put lumber over them. We buried them that way.”

Elizabeth Yakeleya (1906-1994)

We Remember the Coming of the White Man contains 100 black & white photographs as well as a DVD of the 1978 film We Remember, remastered with the director’s commentary.

As Raymond Yakeleya says in the foreword to the book, “Extra footage shot for the film has been lost, but the transcriptions of the Elders’ words in this book remain a precious chronicle of their times.”

“No wonder NWT has closed its borders due to COVID,” says the book’s publisher, Lorene Shyba.


Sarah Simon as a mother with Rev. James Simon and their children Charlie and Susie.

The process of unloading in 1928 was, of course, hand to hand.

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