On This Date: The first Vancouver victim of the 1918 influenza epidemic dies

October 8, 1918

Annie Sachs and her family
Annie Sachs, likely the first victim of the Spanish flu in Vancouver, with husband Fred Jacobs and daughter Freda, circa 1910. Image from Findagrave.com.

The first victim in Vancouver of the 1918 influenza epidemic—Annie Sachs—a mother of three young children – died on October 8, 1918. By October 27, 1918, 24 people in Vancouver died in a single day. By the end of the year, Vancouver had buried more than 600 victims of the Spanish flu. 

The flu epidemic—often called the “Spanish flu”—ripped through Vancouver in 1918 with a blind fury that rivalled the march of senseless deaths of the First World War.  After three waves, the infection finally subsided. One-third of Vancouver’s 100,000 residents had the flu; more than 900 died. Across the globe, the flu took the lives of more than 50 million people.

Impact on Planning and Development in Vancouver

The impact of the Spanish flu on the economy, society and city building cannot easily be separated from the effect of thousands of soldiers returning from the war that ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Regardless, it is clear that 1918 and the following decade were a period of remarkable upheaval as the city grappled with unprecedented change.

Undermined by a weakened economy, South Vancouver declared bankruptcy in 1918 and was placed under provincial receivership. The following year, the city of Vancouver seized more than 2,000 properties for default on property taxes.

The tenor of the time could also be seen in the city’s architecture. The Edwardian era of erecting monumental buildings such as the CNR train station, Hotel Vancouver and Georgia Hotel gave way to more modest projects. Construction shifted to housing, spurred in 1919 by a Canadian Government program called the Better Housing Scheme aimed at creating jobs while providing new homes for returning war veterans. The program incorporated new measures on sanitation and open spaces that reflected lessons learned from the Spanish flu epidemic.

In the following decade, Vancouver underwent extraordinary changes in urban planning, design and architecture as World War One ended, the economy shuddered, protests filled the streets and cities re-invented themselves.  The impact of these changes on urban design is still felt today. 

As the epidemic subsided, a report written by British town planner Thomas Adams in 1915 on comprehensive planning in Greater Vancouver, entitled, Report on the Planning of Greater Vancouver, was pulled off the shelf. Adams had proposed the concept of a Garden City, with open spaces, gardens and sunlit rooms, measures that fit in with best practices at that time—and in our times—for treatment of the infection.

In 1922, the town of Point Grey approved a planning bylaw, the first residential zoning bylaw in North America. West End mansions became rooming houses for returning soldiers as the former homeowners moved into Shaughnessy after the city approved a bylaw prohibiting subdivision of the oversized single-family lots in the area. By the end of the decade, the city embraced the City Beautiful ambitions of Harland Bartholomew that included distribution of parks throughout the city.

Social Impacts

Meanwhile colonization and institutional racism continued apace. The B.C. government in 1920 designated 3,000 acres of forested lands claimed by Indigenous peoples on the western fringe of the city as an endowment to the newly established University of British Columbia. The federal government designated Jericho Beach as a military air-station for use by planes surveying the coast, ignoring claims of the dispossessed indigenous groups who once lived on those lands.

Anti-Chinese discrimination permeated almost every aspect of city government. In 1918, city hall imposed a new $50-licence fee on vegetable peddlers, (mostly Chinese) while store owners (mostly white) paid only $10. Hours of operation were restricted on the pretext of limiting unfair competition from businesses (many in Chinese community) that were open later and on Sundays.

Event

A century later, Vancouver is once again grappling with the effects of a pandemic. The boundaries between past and present begin to blur when we look closely at what happened in 1918 and where we are now. Messages from the past may offer a glimpse of our future, enabling us to prepare for what is heading our way.

Linking the past to our future, the Vancouver City Planning Commission’s Chronology Project is holding a panel discussion 102 years after that heartbreaking day when the virus claimed so many lives – October 27, 2020. This event will explore how the 1918 influenza changed Vancouver and whether we should anticipate similar changes in the months and years ahead. The panel is part of a VCPC series of discussions on the post-pandemic city.

The panel with consider questions such as :

  • What lessons learned during and after the Influenza epidemic can help inform our responses to COVID-19?
  • How did city building, architecture and urban design of Vancouver changed after the 1918 influenza epidemic? and,
  • How did the 1918 pandemic affected Indigenous, Black, Chinese, and Indo-Canadian communities? Are these communities are experiencing similar impacts today during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further Reading

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