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100 years later, Alberta remembers the devastation of the Spanish Flu

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EDMONTON—When Albertans picked up the newspaper 100 years ago, a simple message was repeated in the fine print across the pages: Don’t be afraid.

It wasn’t a reference to the Great War: The armistice between the World War I allies and Germany was weeks away from being signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But another threat was closer to home and just as insidious: In the end, 50,000 Canadians lost their lives in the pandemic.

Photos taken during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Alberta showed the majority of people wearing white masks for their safety, and nurses and volunteers eager to help.
Photos taken during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Alberta showed the majority of people wearing white masks for their safety, and nurses and volunteers eager to help.  (The Glenbow Archives (NA-3452-2))

The news about influenza was so grim that newspapers downplayed its severity out of concern for public morale, explained Suzanna Wagner, a University of Alberta master’s student researching one of the deadliest influenza outbreaks in the world.

Initially the papers didn’t report on it at all. It later became known as the Spanish Flu because Spain was the first country to name the threat.

“It was the young, healthy people that were getting sick and dying, primarily,” said Wagner. As Canadians were just coming to terms with the losses of war, “now the flu is coming in and killing more.”

While the Spanish Flu has long since passed, strains just like it are alive and well today. Public-health officials warn that it’s important to remember the harsh lessons of the past so we can be prepared for the next big outbreak.

The pandemic hit Canada between 1918 and 1920, with the deadliest wave occurring in late 1918, according to historians. The flu killed around 55,000 people in Canada, most of whom were young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, according to government archives.

Around 4,700 of those died in Alberta between late October 1918 to 1919 — exact dates are hard to pin down, Wagner said, due to poor record keeping — when the flu outbreak was at its deadliest.

Newspapers reported provincial bans on large gatherings, which prompted the closure of schools, churches and cinemas for months at a time, Wagner said. They also emphasized following basic precautions, like carrying personal handkerchiefs, and discouraged giving into panic — “almost giving the impression that if you give in to fear, you might get sick,” Wagner said.

A provincial edict made it mandatory in Alberta to wear face masks outside the home, starting on Oct. 26, 1918. Before the enforcement of masks was lifted on Nov. 23, hospitals were struggling to keep up with the rising number of cases. Around 31,000 cases of influenza were reported in the province in 1918.

In Edmonton, there weren’t enough hospital beds, which cost $2.50 a night in the pre-universal health care days. The shortage prompted the city to turn to the University of Alberta for help, which resulted in Pembina Hall being turned into a 123-bed emergency ward from Oct. 26 to Nov. 27, 1918. By the time it was shut down, 72 people died there.

Similar efforts were made in Calgary at Colonel Walker School, Wagner said, but of the two big cities in Alberta, Edmonton was hit worse: 445 people died in Edmonton in 1918 versus 340 in Calgary.

“Calgary actually got off pretty lightly in terms of fatalities,” Wagner said.

Newspaper records show many children were orphaned. Wagner recalled one heartbreaking story in which two young children ran into a nurse on the street outside their home in Edmonton and reported that their mother would not talk to them. They were not old enough to comprehend that she was dead.

An immense pandemic like the Spanish Flu imparted many lessons, said Wagner. In Edmonton, newspapers called upon people to volunteer to take care of the ill, as there weren’t enough nurses to keep up with the demand, reflecting a spirit of generosity and even sacrifice that shone through during a grim time.

The pandemic also played a big role in planting the seeds for the creation of a federal department of health in 1919, according to Mark Humphries, a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University. Later named Health Canada in 1993, the department was the first dedicated body within the government responsible for “all matters and questions relating to the promotion of the health and social welfare of the people of Canada,” according to the House of Commons debates at the time.

Spanish Flu is not much different from the flu nowadays in terms of symptoms, such as fever, aches and coughs. The difference, however, was the lack of understanding of the illness at the time. Doctors falsely believed it was derived from bacteria, not a virus, Wagner said, which led to ineffective treatments.

The influenza virus continues to circulate around the world, but a lot more information has been obtained within the past century on what the virus is, how it changes over time and, most importantly, how to protect vulnerable people from it, according to Dr. Chris Sikora, a public health officer with Alberta Health Services (AHS).

“We have immunization as a tool to help protect the population,” he said.

AHS data shows only around a quarter of Alberta’s population has received the flu shot consistently over the last three years. Sikora said it’s important to remain vigilant and get immunized as the emergence of a new, dangerous virus is always possible.

“The reality is that flu is a disease that is still out there, and it causes pandemics,” Humphries echoed. “This could in some ways happen again.”

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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