QUEBEC CITY -- Did we learn from the cholera epidemic in 1852 in Quebec, then from the Spanish flu in 1918-1919?

An overview of the parliamentary debates of the time shows that those in charge were slow to act, and that the National Assembly took years to improve its action in matters of public hygiene.


On October 30, the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada addressed the issue of cholera the day after the death of one of its members, Standstead representative Hazard Bailey Terrill, who was 40 years old.

Opposition MP Allan McNab sounded the alarm: “There are some great measures before the House that are desirable to adopt, and some of the members who are determined to adopt these measures could stay here to the end, adopt them, and then adjourn the House for three weeks.”

His colleague John A. Macdonald went on to ridicule MPs somewhat: “Everyone has known for weeks that rumours have been circulating about cholera, but members of the Assembly were fairly indifferent, believing themselves to be apparently immortal, until one of theirs is affected.”

On the same day, government MP William Lyon Mackenzie replied that cholera is highly infectious and that it is too difficult to force members to stay in parliament to deal with this epidemic.

Despite these speeches, a first motion to adjourn the House was defeated by a vote of 41 to 15, said historian Christian Blais of the Bibliotheque de l'Assemblee nationale du Quebec.

On November 10, 1852, a sum of 180,000 pounds was granted to the government “to meet the necessary and indispensable expenses (...) which is not otherwise provided for.”

Then, without further debate, the Assembly of the Province of Canada adjourned until February 14, 1853 due to the cholera epidemic in Quebec, which left several hundred people dead.


The so-called Spanish Flu was the subject of only two debates in the Legislative Assembly of the province of Quebec, and the parliament never adjourned because of this epidemic.

When the ravages of the flu were at their peak, the House had already finished its work, says Blais.

On January 28, 1919 - about five months after the first cases of Spanish influenza appeared in Quebec - the leader of the Conservative opposition, Arthur Sauve, asked for documents relating to the disease.

“Perhaps there has been a delay in giving the necessary advice to the population and in some cases, the too late measures have not had the desired result. What is the Hygiene Office currently doing to stop the scourge? (...) Everyone noticed that the provincial health office intervened a little late,” he said.

The premier at the time, Liberal Lomer Gouin, replied: “Nothing was overlooked in this painful circumstance. The province is doing everything it can to fight the Spanish flu.

“The population must be grateful, they must rejoice when they see the results. This was possible mainly thanks to the cooperation of doctors, especially doctors and nurses, who showed the greatest dedication and the most admirable zeal to fight the epidemic,” he continued.

Schools were closed and turned into makeshift hospitals during this period.

“As far as the Health Council is concerned, it has never slowed down its work. (...) All efforts are being made to treat new cases, even if the epidemic has passed and there is no shortage in the fight against the scourge,” added the premier.

This did not seem to satisfy Sauve, who asked if the government is taking steps to prevent a new epidemic.

The final toll was heavy: 50,000 victims in Canada, including 14,000 in Quebec, which felt no less than four waves of Spanish flu.

“If the rumour is to be believed, some doctors neglect to report new cases and do not do their homework by not making the reports they are required to make. We are not giving enough attention to schools,” protested Sauve.

Three months later, on March 14, 1919, it was the opposition Conservative MP Charles Allan Smart’s turn to address the question of the Spanish flu in a debate concerning the “wounded or sick in war.”

The Chamber then adopted a new public health law, Bill 26, presented by the Provincial Secretary, Jeremie-Louis Decarie. Control of the hygiene services gradually passed from the local authorities to the provincial government.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 29, 2020.