Manitoba History: Manitoba Mennonites and the State: Wartime Measures and the Influenza Pandemic in Hanover

by Vanessa Quiring
Department of History, University of Waterloo

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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On 16 October 1918, the Steinbach Post published two public health notices concerning the prevention and management of influenza, almost simultaneously with the appearance of the first cases of the disease in the Rural Municipality of Hanover (hereafter Hanover) in what was known as the East Reserve in Manitoba. [1] These notices were a part of a very select number of advertisements and advice columns provided through the Post concerning ways to cope with influenza. Appearing just prior to the end of a four-year long conflict overseas which Mennonites opposed, the appearance of influenza in the community was dealt with in the midst of a wave of anti-German sentiment from the state. As a group whose ethos of faith revolved around pacifism and the maintenance of German language, Mennonites were a potential threat to the Canadian war effort. Continued anti-German sentiment alienated Mennonites and further reinforced the perceived need for a separate and cohesive community enclave as a way to stave off intrusion of ‘outside’ world. [2] Of concern were such regulations governing conscription and the censorship of German language publications. The lengthy German language publication ban exposes just one of the longer-term consequences of wartime measures on health. Government press censorship, conflict over education and schooling, the appointment of health officers and bans on meetings and church services all created tension, and arguably contributed to the distinctly higher mortality rate amongst the Mennonites of Hanover.

Calculating Mortality

By the time of the influenza pandemic, other immigrant groups had settled in the municipality of Hanover. Thus, it is possible to compare Mennonite deaths resulting from influenza to those of non-Mennonites in Hanover. Figure 1 illustrates the absolute number of influenza deaths amongst Mennonites and non-Mennonites. [3] In Hanover, there was a total of 42 cases of influenza or influenza-related deaths recorded from October 1918 to April 1919 amongst Mennonites.

The global tendency for influenza to disproportionately affect the young adult population, the very young, and the elderly was observed in Hanover. [4] When examining the number of deaths amongst Mennonites based on age and sex, young adults were most affected by the epidemic and young men were more vulnerable to the disease than young women and constituted a lesser number of deaths outside of the young adult (13–30) range.

In Hanover, non-Mennonite deaths related to influenza numbered only six while there were 42 flu-related deaths among Mennonites. The mortality rate from influenza was 13.5 per 1,000 for Mennonites in Hanover. [5] This rate was more than double the Canadian national average of 6.1 per 1,000. [6] In comparison, the mortality rate from influenza for the non-Mennonite population of Hanover was 8.6 per 1,000. Mennonites were more likely to succumb to influenza in 1918–1919. [7] Without accurate morbidity statistics, it is impossible to determine whether Mennonites contracted the flu more than the rest of the population, or whether they were more prone to dying from the disease, while non-Mennonites recovered more easily.

Further, these mortality statistics do not include deaths that were an indirect cause of influenza. Howard Phillips has recently argued that influenza mortality should not include only those who died of influenza but also of its longer-term effects. [8]

The deaths of infants and potential mothers do not make it onto the death certificates. A number of stillborn babies and infants dying of general debility were recorded for the years of the pandemic. [9] Were these deaths related to the flu pandemic and mothers not being able to carry their children to term due to having the disease?

Accepting the above conceptual complexities, I argue that high death rates from influenza amongst Mennonites stemmed from a mixed acceptance of public health regulations, and inadequate deployment of health care services and health information. Government policies, both federal and provincial, including conscription, the issue of German language in private and public schools and, issues of wartime censorship undermined the relationship between Mennonites and the state. This affected how they responded to the epidemic and their attitudes towards state intervention in matters of health.

Figure 1. Influenza Deaths in Hanover, Manitoba. Number of influenza deaths amongst Mennonites and non-Mennonites in Hanover, Manitoba, from August 1918 until the end of April 1919.

Figure 1. Influenza Deaths in Hanover, Manitoba. Number of influenza deaths amongst Mennonites and non-Mennonites in Hanover, Manitoba, from August 1918 until the end of April 1919.
Source: RM of Hanover

Wartime Regulations and Health

First, federal military conscription undermined relationships between Mennonites and the state, which in turn affected the way that Mennonites responded to state-imposed measures concerning the epidemic. By the fall of 1918, the war was coming to an end; however, over the previous months, there had been an increase in war production and in military recruiting. On the home front, Canadian families had suffered the loss of brothers, fathers, and husbands overseas and young women working as nurses. When Britain declared itself at war, Canada—as a part of the British Empire—was also at war. This was the newly formed Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first major foray into war. As propaganda supporting voluntary service increased, the war effort affected all sectors of society. Factories needed labour to continue war production and farms demanded attention for agricultural production. [10] On the home front, wartime mobilization and the loss of male members of the labour force to overseas combat opened up debates about women’s right to vote, and women’s work outside the home. Volunteer nursing organizations recruited many young nurses to care for the wounded. [11] However, by 1916, it was clear that voluntary enlistment was not working as the number of recruits decreased. Prime Minister Borden saw no alternative other than conscription. [12] Upon his return from a trip to Britain, where he met with the British prime minister, Borden decided that conscription was necessary as more men were needed for the military. His administration drew up the Military Service Bill, which called for conscription, and debate ensued over the clauses of exemptions to military service. The Bill passed on 11 June 1917 and on 29 August 1917, the Military Service Act was signed into law. The act meant that all British subjects between the ages of twenty and fortyfive could be called upon to serve in the military. The Military Service Act was not enforced until Borden formed a coalition government and won the election in the fall of 1917. [13] Concern over conscription was felt throughout the country. While some Canadians were strong proponents of conscription, especially those with ties to the British Empire, other groups, including pacifists, farmers, French-Canadians, and a number of religious denominations (including Mennonites) opposed conscription.

Conscription followed upon the Manitoba school issue of 1916, which had made Mennonites unsure of their place within the Canadian population. [14] The provincial policy affected multiple groups as it made English the only language of instruction in schools rather than having bilingual public schools. As a response to this, and also to changes in the curriculum of district schools, compulsory school attendance for the pupils, and the lack of Mennonite religious authority within the schools, some Mennonites reverted back to private schools. [15] Mennonites felt provincial policies on language and education threatened their rights under the Privilegium and, most important, undermined their religious practices as the German language had become so central to their faith. [16]

Thus, through the war years, Mennonites increasingly worried that the government would void certain aspects of the 1873 Privilegium, which clearly stated “an entire exemption from military service, as is provided by law and order-in-council, will be granted to the denomination of Christians called Mennonites.” [17] Thus, the Privilegium gave Mennonites the assurance that they would be exempted from military service. In the early years of the war, some Mennonite groups, notably the Kleine Gemeinde, began raising funds for the Red Cross through their private schools. The funds were to be used by the government specifically for relief work and not to support the war. [18] Fundraising was a way of thanking the government for its continued adherence to the military clause of the Privilegium. [19] Problems between the Mennonite communities and the government arose, however, when the War Measures Act (1914) was used in 1916 to dedicate a week in January to register and account for the potential manpower of the country. [20] The fact that registration cards were to be filled out by all males from ages 16 to 65 under the War Measures Act worried Mennonites. Some Mennonites refused to fill out the cards although direct disobedience to the state made many uncomfortable. [21] Doctrines of obedience to the state date far back into Mennonite history whereby, according to Amy Shaw, “the state was instituted by God in response to human sin in order to punish the evil and protect the good.” [22] Mennonites usually respected government authority even when there could be disagreement over policies. [23]

In order to deal with the registration issue, Mennonites were informed that their previous agreement would be honoured and they would be exempt from military service, although they would have to fill out the registration cards, write “Mennonite” on them and have them approved by a respected member of the Church, notably the pastor. [24] While this was a compromise, federal actions created tensions between the Mennonites and the government and created uncertainty regarding their continued rights. At the same time, military exemption from conscription fostered resentment amongst the general population: why were these German-speakers exempted from military service while those in Quebec and other parts of Canada were required to abide by the laws of conscription? Although some Mennonites felt compelled to enlist voluntarily, those few Mennonites also risked losing their Church membership by doing so. [25] Letters were sent to the federal government in order to assure the government of the cooperation of the Mennonites and their loyalty to Canada. [26] Nevertheless, by the end of the First World War, the conscription crisis had undermined Mennonite trust in the Canadian state.

Second, the ongoing war against a German enemy created hostility towards Mennonites throughout the country. Fears of the presence of German sympathizers, especially in cases of those communicating in enemy languages, played a major role in the tensions between government and Mennonites. In order to better control and be able to prevent correspondence that actively discouraged military support or was viewed as pro-German, the Chief Press Censor, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers, solidified the censorship powers of the government by consolidating various orders-in-council from the beginning of the war in 1917. [27] Chambers was appointed Chief Press Censor in 1915 when the Chief Censor’s Office was created through an Order-in-Council because the government needed a better way of preventing the press from leaking sensitive information during the war. [28] With the approval of the Secretary of State, Chambers went beyond the War Measures Act in dealing with publications and implemented numerous Orders-in-Council that restricted the press. Chambers had the authority to prohibit the publication of any sources that criticized military efforts or policies and thus stir disaffection, or hinder the eventual success of the war. [29]

Wartime censorship severely impacted Mennonites, further undermining relations with the state, as well as hampering the ability of public health officials to communicate with a German-speaking immigrant group. Publications in German outside Canada, including those from Mennonite locales in the United States such as the paper of the General Conference Mennonite Church of North America, Der Christliche Bundesbote, faced restrictions and import bans. The paper was published in Indiana and could no longer be imported into Canada through the postal service. Anyone owning a copy of the paper could be severely fined. [30] The main opposition to this paper was that it was published in German and so, in order to pass censorship, the Canadian issues were published in English under the title of The Mennonite. [31]

Figure 2. Influenza Deaths by Age Amongst Mennonites in Hanover, MB. Mennonite influenza deaths by sex and age in the Rural Municipality of Hanover from August 1918 until the end of April 1919.

Figure 2. Influenza Deaths by Age Amongst Mennonites in Hanover, MB. Mennonite influenza deaths by sex and age in the Rural Municipality of Hanover from August 1918 until the end of April 1919.
Source: RM of Hanover

Censorship was a problem for Canadian Mennonite papers as well. The participation of Mennonite congregations in the Victory Bond drive was a central concern to the censors. [32] As the Victory Bond campaign funds were to be used specifically to support the war, Mennonites felt uneasy as this potentially countermanded their affirmation of pacifism. Some of the Bergthaler Mennonites in Manitoba were especially uncertain: they felt that it was necessary for them to support the government financially but asked that their contributions, left at the individual’s discretion, be used solely for foodstuffs. [33] Other congregations refused to participate in the campaign and, as an alternative, gave donations to the Red Cross to be used specifically for relief purposes. When Jacob Friesen, editor of the Steinbach Post, refused to place a paid advertisement for Victory Bonds in the paper, he was confronted by the Chief Press Censor to explain his position. [34] Eventually this matter was allowed to pass; however, by September 1918, the Post was facing the Press Censor again, given that it continued to forgo any mention of the war and continued publication in German. [35] Canadian ethnic papers, a few weeks prior to the end of hostilities, faced severe censorship regulations. Under pressure from the Great War Veterans’ Association, the federal government allowed the Press Censor to prevent the publication of papers in enemy languages including German, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Turkish, Finnish, Ruthenian, Estonian, Croatian, and Livonian as well as banning these languages at public meetings. By April 1919, only those newspapers in the principal enemy languages, including German, continued to face bans on publications unless for solely religious, literary, or legal material. [36]

The Post was left with two options in October 1918 — either face suspension of the paper outright or attempt to pass through the censors by switching its language of publication to English. Although, according to Ens, the Post was considered one of the least offensive and dangerous enemy language papers, it faced serious criticism, partly due to previous issues brought to the attention of the press censor including the lack of Victory Bond advertisements in the paper. [37] Although the censorship law came into effect on 1 October 1918, barring publication of the paper in German, the Post published its next two issues in German before switching to English on 16 October 1918. It included in the next issues announcements and advertisements for the purchase of the Victory Loan campaign. [38] The paid advertisements for the loan campaign in the Post specifically targeted the Mennonite population, playing on the number of privileges obtained by these German speakers in Canada. One advertisement read: “Canada expects every Citizen of German birth or descent to help maintain the freedom he has found in Canada, by buying Victory Bonds,” asking Mennonites, other German speakers and their descendants to buy these bonds to support the war. [39] The publication of these advertisements and further articles referring to the war reveal that the editor of the Post, rather than suspend publication, accepted the regulations placed upon him in order to be able to keep informing at least some of the members of the community of local news.

Changing the language of a community paper to English, which could only be read or written by about onethird of the population, limited journalistic content and letters to the Editor. Friesen never gave a direct reason for the change to English though he appealed to his readers to rally together to maintain a community:

Our readers will likely be surprised to see that their paper comes in the English language now without any explanations of the Editor. We trust our readers will stay with us although some will have a hard time reading the paper for two reasons first because they are not used to reading English and second on account of the poor English the Editor is able to produce, for this last cause the Editor asks his readers to excuse him, as he also has had practically no education in this language, but always tried very hard to master it. We ask our readers to study hard and make as good as they can, and keep on reading our paper, and so help us and themselves at the same time. [40]

Although this statement by Friesen shows both some resentment and resignation towards the censorship and government, they also indicate that Friesen, at least, believed that some level of English was needed to be understood by the members of the community. By standing and rallying together, the Post continued its publication; however, its readership was somewhat diminished. Correspondence in the Post also decreased as the editor had to translate some of the letters coming to the paper into English as best he could. [41] Some readers tried to continue to provide content for the Post and encouraged others to do the same. Abraham Friesen emphasized the difficulty and the value that the Post has when the community wrote about the issues. In a long letter to the Editor and readers, he wrote:

It must be a hard task for the dear Editor to fill his or rather our paper without any support from us readers. It also loses of its value without any news from the different readers, therefore dear reader, we better pick up and push to keep it rolling over the tide, which I believe must be at the highest point pretty soon, oh, I wish the Post would appear in its own language again. [42]

Others also supported the Post and encouraged continued correspondence as much as possible. One contributor from Roland, Manitoba, explained that “I though it better to have a few lines appear in the Post from this district, to help out the publisher and our local paper, for I still find it of great value.” [43] Since the Post now had to be in English, it affected the diffusion of public health information when the flu epidemic began. Some readers and authors tried to continue writing despite this difficulty with the English language. One “Tante” Schmidt explained that “as I do not intend to for the sake of the editor, and cannot write English myself, so will try a borrowed hand.” [44] Only a third of the readers were able to understand the public health announcements. Although Mennonites felt compelled to follow government regulations as they had for the registration cards, some hesitancy to accept ‘English’ methods was felt, including in the area of heath care. [45]


The existing provisions of The Public Health Act ensured that Mennonites had to follow state imposed management systems for the epidemic. On 11 October 1918, at a meeting of the Provincial Board of Health, a decision was made that influenza be considered as epidemic within Winnipeg and surrounding areas. The Board gave health officers the authority to close schools and public meeting areas, including some stores. The Board directed local health officers to take measures as soon as influenza was found within the community, and to limit public gatherings not deemed essential. [46] These were similar to flu control measures in various regions across the country, which included bans on public gatherings, such as church services, funeral services in some cases, school closures, and the closing of theatres and cinemas. Quarantine was tried in some locales though it was not very effective. Wearing of masks was strongly encouraged and regulated in some cities. Incoming trains, passengers, and their luggage were fumigated. [47]

Closure of schools, churches, and meeting places remained at the discretion of the municipality’s health officers. The closure in Hanover of some stores at an earlier than accustomed hour, was influenced by the decision in Winnipeg to do the same. [48] As far as can be discerned, in Hanover public health measures were followed when the order was issued directly by a government official. However, the role of Health Officer changed hands multiple times over the course of the epidemic in Hanover. The position was not always held by a licensed physician, which contributed to the difficulty of enforcing any long-term ban on meetings and the closure of schools. [49]

The epidemic began in earnest in early November with a number of community members being placed on the sick list. The sick list was kept by the Health Officer who was responsible for reporting all cases and suspected cases of influenza in order to try and control the spread of the disease. [50] In the worst weeks of the epidemic for Hanover, namely the month of November, numerous cases of the flu were reported and yet there were no central resources for helping the ill. No dedicated hospital existed within the community. Dr. Hans Herschman from Steinbach, who had medical training, had been Health Officer until his resignation in June 1918. [51] Hanover therefore had no official Health Officer until the epidemic began, at which point it appointed one, as was required by the Provincial Board of Health. [52] The Municipality of Hanover appointed Dr. Belanger, a physician from the neighbouring village of Ste. Anne, to become the Health Officer for the municipality in November through to the end of December. [53] It is unclear from the records whether or not Dr. Belanger remained the Health Officer until the end of December but at a meeting of the Municipality’s Council in December, John D. Goossen was appointed Health Officer for the remainder of the year and into the month of January. [54]

While Dr. Belanger was appointed Health Officer for a part of the epidemic, there was no licensed doctor practising exclusively within the Hanover district at the time of the epidemic. The Health Officer appointed in the fall of 1918, John D. Goossen, was not a licensed medical practitioner but instead was a member of the Hanover Municipal council. As the Secretary Treasurer for Hanover, he was already responsible for filing and completing all vital statistics forms including certificates of death. [55] Goossen was also a real estate manager. He appears to have fallen into the role of Health Officer when one was needed. No provincial regulation existed that stated that a Health Officer needed to be a medical practitioner. While Goossen filled out many of the death certificates, he was not named Health Officer until a Council Meeting in early December although he was paid retroactively from July until December 1918. [56]

The appointment of Health Officers during the epidemic by municipalities was a means by which the Provincial Board of Health maintained some control and monitored the situation. In Hanover, however, the situation was very unstable. Untangling lines of authority is yet further complicated by the fact that Dr. Belanger may not have been acting as Health Officer for the entirety of his appointment, as a Dr. S. Kraminsky was appointed as Health Officer for a period of ten days from 14 November to 30 November. Kraminsky occupied the role of Health Officer for a very brief period of time and there is scant evidence has been found to understand his brief tenure. He also received a salary of ten dollars a day—a high salary given that the salary for most other Health Officers in 1918 and 1919 varied between five and ten dollars a month, except for Dr. Belanger who was paid on a case by case basis. [57] Dr. Kraminsky was responsible for the health of the region of Hanover during the height of the epidemic. Unlike other Health Officers, Kraminsky charged patients additional fees when completing his duties as Health Officer. This prompted the municipality to later reimburse all the patients by deducting the fees charged to patients by Kraminsky from the salary he received from the Municipality, as it was the municipality’s duty to pay for a Health Officer. [58] Perhaps this ‘double dipping’ or double-billing had something to do with the municipality’s decision to replace him.

The epidemic placed stress on a very limited health system, which had only begun to organize itself with health officers in the years prior to the epidemic. High turnover in the position of health officer prevented a consistent public health response. An examination of the notice of deaths that were to be filed with the Province of Manitoba, points to the lack of physicians. Out of all influenza deaths of Mennonite members, of which there were 42 from September 1918 to May 1919, only ten of those who died listed a family physician. Another six who died of other causes had a family physician listed. The physicians listed were from the neighbouring villages of Ste. Anne and Lorette. One physician, who resided in Hanover, was only listed as the family physician on the certificates during his brief time as health officer. [59] Even with a family physician listed, the physician would not often have been at the house at the time of death, as the certificates do not list that the physician attended the death.

The epidemic left health officers overworked and days would go by between the date of death stated by the family or person reporting the death and the investigation of the cause of death by the health officer or Secretary-Treasurer of the municipality. In many cases, two or three days passed between the date of death and when the death certificate was completed. [60] This discrepancy in dates could be accounted for by the possible closure of public offices on certain days, but does not explain all delays in investigating a death. In some cases, the health officer and his medical training, would be the determining factor in the prompt completion and filing of a notice of death. For example, John D. Goossen was responsible for investigating the deaths, the investigation would often take place the next day, especially when the death occurred in the afternoon. However, when a physician investigated the death, it would often be done that same day or the next day. When only one Health officer was available, the certificates would be often be signed the next day as reporting and investigating the death meant that the health officer had to travel to the homes of the deceased. [61]

A lack of English language skills could be a problem for those diagnosing causes of deaths including influenza on death certificates, but the nature of the disease itself further complicated matters. Of those who died of influenza, the majority died from pneumonia or another respiratory complication arising from it. In some cases, victims of tuberculosis were further weakened by the influenza virus and died. The first recorded death from influenza occurred 4 November 1918 and yet the virus had reached Winnipeg, some sixty kilometers away, at the end of September. It is plausible that no flu deaths occurred until November as very little local news reports of ill community members appeared in the paper until the end of October. However, some earlier deaths, which had been attributed to “Inflammation of the Lungs” and lasted only three days before death, may have been caused by flu, as a list of those who died of the flu published in the Post suggests. [62]

On 8 November 1918, a young male died of what was diagnosed as “inflammation of the lungs (flu).” That same day, a woman in her thirties also died. [63] Her death was the first to be recorded as “Spanish Influenza” with no contributory cause listed. [64] It is unclear whether or not this woman suffered from any other disease prior to having contracted influenza. Other causes of death were listed without the presence of influenza and related to respiratory complications. These causes included lobar pneumonia, consumption of lungs, bronchopneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis. [65] Tuberculosis was present in the Hanover prior to the flu pandemic and though all of the above mentioned causes of death are infections of the respiratory system, it is unclear to what extent patients who were diagnosed with consumption and/or tuberculosis were affected by influenza. Influenza presented itself with various symptoms and when unsure of the cause of death, influenza and bronchopneumonia usually appeared together on the death certificate.

According to public health notices printed in the Post, most important for both prevention and management of the disease was to remain isolated and to keep away from crowds. [66] The various means of prevention advertised included avoiding people who suffered from cold symptoms such as fevers and coughs; maintain a steady room temperature between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, eating a simple nourishing diet and avoiding alcohol. While the last was not all that difficult for most Mennonites who did not drink, one point involved avoiding any visits to those afflicted or ill. [67] Public health officials and physicians prescribed measures to help the ailing and relieve symptoms of the flu. Given the limits of medical knowledge and treatment options, it is perhaps not surprising that these measures were similar to Mennonite home remedies for flu. During the early onset of the disease, bed rest and keeping a steady and dry room temperature were some of the most important measures advocated by public health officials. [68] Among Mennonites, methods for relieving symptoms ranged from prayer, using quinine, and even the newly available pain reliever aspirin. [69]

Within two weeks of the first reports of influenza in Winnipeg, the Board of Health issued a notice that restricted public meetings as well as the operating hours of stores at the discretion of local health officers. A few days later, the earlier closing time was extended to surrounding areas, including Hanover. [70] Storeowners closed their stores by seven each evening in order to prevent the gathering of too many people. The decision to close the stores was not welcomed by all owners. [71] The Reimer and Loewen stores published rather resentful notices in the Post informing readers of the change in operating hours and commenting “we are compelled, for certain reasons to close our Store at 7 o’clock at night after October 15th, 1918.” [72] By the end of the war on 11 November 1918, the stores were still maintaining reduced hours, with some stores closing at six each evening. [73] The stores maintained reduced hours until December. Local advertisements insisted by early December that soon businesses would be open for their regular hours. In the 11 December 1918 Steinbach Post, J. R. Friesen’s advertisement specifically referenced the flu, stating “now that the ‘FLU’ epidemic is over, we are again in position to repair your cars and do the welding for you” while K. Reimer Sons Ltd. insisted that all was “business as usual.” [74]

The ban on public meetings in Winnipeg lasted seven weeks and was lifted on 27 November 1918. [75] It was expected that the ban would be lifted in surrounding areas as well in the coming days and weeks. Church services also suffered disruptions during the epidemic. For a brief period of time starting on 17 November 1918 and continuing for two weeks, church services were cancelled in the municipality. Meetings of the Brotherhood of the Bergthaler Church appeared to be suspended during the outbreak of influenza. The final meeting of the Brotherhood prior to the outbreak of influenza occurred in October 1918 and no meeting took place again until June 1919. [76] However, Brotherhood meetings of other churches, namely the Kleine Gemeinde, occurred periodically throughout the epidemic. [77]

School closures were also implemented in Hanover. In 1890, thirty-six schools were in operation in Hanover and a similar number were in operation in 1918. The school in Steinbach, the Kornelsen School, was closed due to the epidemic but only because the space was needed to treat victims of influenza whose families were too ill to care for them. Other schools were also closed during the epidemic. It was not only the Mennonite schools that were closed; half-yearly attendance records for fall 1918 demonstrate that most schools in the area were closed throughout all of November and were open for just a few days to a week in December. All schools within Hanover that can be found in the registers, including the schools in Hochstadt, Blumenhoff, and Steinbach, were reopened by January as the epidemic presented fewer new cases. [78] In this regard, Mennonites followed the law.

Since there was no hospital in Hanover in 1918, in November, at the height of the epidemic, Aganetha “Agnes” Fast, a local woman from Steinbach who had been studying nursing in Minnesota, was placed in charge of the makeshift hospital in Steinbach. Agnes Fast, known locally as the “Florence Nightingale of Steinbach” rose to prominence in the community for her role in caring for patients. [79] She, along with other young women from the Hanover region helped with all general nursing tasks at the makeshift hospital. While the district school was not the ideal location for a hospital, as it was not built with medical treatment in mind, it did allow for a more centralized system of care. The schoolhouse, a two-room building, enabled a better orientation for the organization of beds as in a hospital ward. The first floor encompassed all the beds for the sick, the basement was used as a kitchen and the steam heating system allowed for better ventilation than would have been possible in most homes. Managers for the hospital, chosen amongst the Hanover population in mid-November included Mr. C.P. Toews, Mr. P.H. Funk, and Mr. H. W. Reimer Jr. [80] They ensured that the makeshift hospital ran smoothly and that patients continued to have the necessary equipment and care.

Entire families were hospitalized to obtain better care when all were afflicted. Although no record to indicating when the hospital opened precisely, it was open in early November and served this purpose for a very limited time. Talks of moving the few remaining patients began in early December in order to reopen the school since only three patients remained there. The school was reopened by the second week of December. [81] By January, the epidemic had begun to present fewer new cases and the number of deaths was rapidly dropping. Schools throughout the North American Mennonite diaspora had been closed due to the outbreak of flu. Schools in Gretna, in the West Reserve were closed in November, as were some in Alberta, Kansas, and Montana. In Swalwell, Alberta, the church house had been converted into a hospital in November, posing a logistical problem concerning church services. [82]

There were not enough doctors to effectively serve the entire municipality. For physicians, whether Mennonite Notes for this article are available on the MHS website: or scan the QR code at right to go directly to the notes. or not, working in rural areas was not a financially viable option for the most part. The great distance to be travelled between homes and the lack of means to pay for medical services hindered the establishment of medical practices. [83] Hanover, during the epidemic, had multiple street villages, very few physicians available, and one health officer who had to travel quite some distance to attend to deaths. The lack of physicians during the epidemic was strongly felt and this was recorded in the newspaper. [84] Physicians and volunteers were needed, even with the presence of Aganetha Fast and one makeshift hospital.

Given that the presence of physicians in the community, non-Mennonite physicians more specifically, had created tensions between lay and professional medical practitioners for years, this plea is unexpected. Mennonites relied primarily on lay practitioners for their medical services. [85] Mennonite midwives occupied an important role within the largely patriarchal world of Hanover and were some of the most highly regarded members of the community. [86] Occupying the role of midwife, they also consulted in all matters of mundane health issues and were often also the undertakers for the community. [87]

Hanover Mennonites were not passive in the face of the influenza epidemic. However, their response was shaped and to some extent limited by several factors. Untrained medical practitioners, lack of proper accommodation for victims of the disease, and difficulty in communicating public health information through the newspapers aggravated the situation in Hanover over the course of the epidemic. Their German ethnic identity, wartime antiGerman sentiment from the general public, fear of excessive modernization, and the tensions between the state and the Mennonites concerning the War Measures Act all contributed to the difficulty and anxiety of Mennonites when dealing with public health authorities. Mennonites continued to rely on their established rural patterns of health care during the epidemic. They followed some of the requirements of the Public Health Act while refusing to systematically follow quarantines and isolation. Mennonites, while still relying on physicians from outside the Mennonite community, maintained a tight community connection, caring for relatives and family members. Although bans on public meetings were placed, they were not closely observed in the Mennonite community, as Mennonites were reluctant to give up their church services and community meetings, especially as health care was based in community networks which contributed to a higher death rate amongst Mennonites.


The author would like to thank Esyllt Jones and the peer reviewer for their thoughtful comments on ways to improve this article as well as thank Royden Loewen, James Hanley, Christopher Fries and Glen Klassen for their comments on earlier drafts. This research was made possible, in part, through funding provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, by the D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation Inc. Research Grant, and a Spletzer Family Foundation Research Scholarship in German-Canadian Studies.

1. “What to do if you have influenza,” Steinbach Post (hereafter SP), 16 October 1918, pp. 2-3; “How to keep from getting influenza,” Steinbach Post [hereafter, SP], 16 October 1918, p. 3.

2. Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: The History of a Separate People, Toronto: Macmillan Company Ltd., 1974, p. 288.

3. The graph was compiled by examining causes of deaths listed on all deaths certificates for 1918 and 1919 for the RM of Hanover. A search for all names in the census of 1916 and 1921 was completed. All names were checked with the religion listed for that person, or for their parents in cases of deaths of those that were not listed in the 1916 census. Deaths were then organized by date, sex, and age. All deaths recorded as influenza deaths included causes of death such as bronchitis or bronchopneumonia with influenza, influenza, flu, Grippa and inflammation of the lungs with flu. Deaths listed solely as bronchopneumonia but attributed to influenza in the local paper were also counted as were cases of respiratory illness even when lacking a contributory or secondary cause.

4. This trend in influenza deaths has been well recorded by historians. See Janice McGinnis, “The Impact of Epidemic Influenza in Canada, 1918-1919,” Historical Papers vol. 12, no. 1 (1977): 125; Niall Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine vol. 76, no. 1 (2002): 3-4; Ann Herring, “‘There Were Young People and Old People and Babies Dying Every Week’: The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at Norway House,” Ethnohistory vol. 41, no. 1 (1994): p. 96.

5. The 1916 and 1921 censuses were used to identify all Mennonites within the RM of Hanover and establish the mortality rate. The population estimate for 1918 was calculated by interpolation, with the assumption that the population grew at a constant rate. Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Official Notice of Death, December 1917- December 1920, Rural Municipality of Hanover, Microfilm 706, Box #4.

6. Ann Herring and Ellen Korol, “The North-South Divide: Social Inequality and Mortality from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Hamilton, Ontario,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones, Eds. Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, p. 98.

7. The excess death rate in various rural municipalities, calculated using counts of death available through vital statistics, do not include an analysis of the cause of death. This approach showed that Mennonites had a higher mortality rate than French Canadians as presented in, Glen Klassen and Kimberly Penner, “Influenza Pandemic Deaths among Manitoba Mennonites in 1918-19,” Preservings vol. 28 (2008): 24-29.

8. Howard Phillips, “Second Opinion: The Recent Wave of ‘Spanish’ Flu Historiography,” Social History of Medicine vol. 27, no. 4 (2014): 798.

9. Penner, Hanover: One Hundred Years, 132; Death Certificates 1918-1919. Rural Municipality of Hanover Records. Mennonite Heritage Archives.

10. Amy Shaw, Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009, pp. 41-42.

11. Terry Wilde, “Freshettes, Farmerettes, and Feminine Fortitude at the University of Toronto during the First World War,” in Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, Eds., A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, pp. 88-90.

12. Ibid., p. 172.

13. Shaw, Crisis of Consciene, pp. 26-28.

14. Ibid., pp. 20-21; Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 183-184.

15. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 120-124.

16. Ibid., pp. 110-114, 120-124. The Privilegium, or what these Mennonites had viewed as such was a letter written by John Lowe, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture in 1873 responding to the question of education. A second Privilegium, or rather the legal Privilegium had already changed the terms of the education clause of which few Mennonites were aware. For more on this letter, see particularly, Ens, Subjects or Citizens; Adolf Ens, “The Conspiracy that Never Was,” Mennonite Historian vol. 11, no. 3 (1985): pp. 1-2.

17. Ibid., 1 p. 72.

18. Ibid., pp. 173-175.

19. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, p. 46.

20. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 173-174; Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, p. 42.

21. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, p. 43.

22. According to Amy Shaw, the confession of faith known as the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 clearly lists the affirmation that God ordained the office of government. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, p. 55.

23. Ibid., p. 55.

24. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 173-174.

25. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, pp. 46-47.

26. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, p. 173.

27. Ibid., pp. 184-187. For a more in-depth analysis of the various causes of tensions and the situation of Mennonites during the First World War see: Ens, Subjects or Citizens?; Shaw, Crisis of Conscience; Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: The History of a Separate People, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

28. Jeffrey Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996, p. 66.

29. Ibid., pp. 66-67.

30. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, p. 185; Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship, pp. 67-68.

31. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 185-186.

32. Ibid., p. 186.

33. Ibid., p. 184; Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, p. 47.

34. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, pp. 186-188.

35. Ibid., p. 184.

36. Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship, p. 68.

37. Ens, Subjects of Citizens?, p. 186.

38. Ibid., 188; “Victory Loan Advertisement,” SP, 13 November 1918, 3. Note that Victory Bonds were issued by the Canadian Government prior to November 1917; thereafter, and including the Second World War, they were called Victory Loans.

39. “Victory Loan Advertisement,” SP, 13 November 1918, p. 3.

40. “Locals,” SP, 16 October 1918, p. 2.

41. Numerous letters to the Editor remarked on the limited number of people sending correspondence to the paper due to the language restriction. See, ‘Tante’ Schmidt, “‘Tante’ Schmidt to the Post,” SP, 13 November 1918, p. 6; “Correspondence – Kansas,” SP, 13 November 1918, p. 6; J. M. Loewen, “J. M. Loewen to the Post and readers,” SP, p. 20 November 1918, p. 7; Catherine Loewen “Catherine Loewen to the Editor and Readers,” SP, p. 11 December 1918, p. 2.

42. Abr. R. Friesen, “Abr. Friesen to Editor and the whole Post family,” SP, 18 December 1918, p. 2.

43. J. M. Loewen, “J. M. Loewen to the Editor and Readers,” SP, 20 November 1918, p. 3.

44. Schmidt, “Schmidt to the Editor,” SP, 13 November 1918.

45. Ens, Subjects or Citizens?, p. 188.

46. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM)., GR1548, Box 12, Province of Manitoba, Provincial Board of Health Minutes Books, “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious and Infectious by Dr. Gordon Bell.” 11 October 1918.

47. Esyllt Jones, Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 16-17.

48. PAM. GR1548. Box 12. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minutes Books. “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious.” 11 October 1918.

49. The 11th General Council Meeting, Nov. 4th, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 4 November 1918. Steinbach: RM of Hanover Council Office. p. 2; The 12th General Council Meeting, Dec. 3rd, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 3 December 1918. Steinbach: RM of Hanover Council Office. p. 2; Abe Warkentin, Reflections on Our Heritage: A History of Steinbach and the R.M. of Hanover from 1874, Steinbach: Derksen Printers Ltd, 1971, pp. 219-220.

50. PAM. GR1548. Box 12. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minutes Books. “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious.” 11 October 1918.

51. The Sixth General Council Meeting, June 2nd 1918. General Council Meeting of the Rural Municipality of Hanover Minutes Books. 2 June 1918. Steinbach: Rural Municipality of Hanover Council Office. p. 1.

52. PAM. GR1548. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minute Books. “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious.” 11 October 1918.

53. The 11th General Council Meeting, Nov. 4th, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 4 November 1918, p. 2

54. The 12th General Council Meeting, Dec. 3rd, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 3 December 1918, p. 2

55. Warkentin, Reflections on Our Heritage, pp. 65-66.

56. The 12th General Council Meeting, Dec. 3rd, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 3 December 1918, p. 2.

57. The 11th General Council Meeting, Nov. 4th, 1918. General Council Meeting of the RM of Hanover Minutes Books. 4 November 1918, p. 2

58. PAM. GR1548. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minute Books. “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious and Infectious by Dr. Gordon Bell,” 11 October 1918.

59. MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

60. MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

61. Lydia Penner, Hanover: One Hundred Years, Steinbach: R.M. of Hanover, 1982, p. 145; MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

62. Heinrich Rempel, “Deaths Reported in Hanover from Sept. 1, 1918 Until Jan. 17, 1919,” SP, 2-3; Death Certificates 1918-1919. Rural Municipality of Hanover Records. Mennonite Heritage Archives.

63. MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

64. MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

65. MHCA. Official Notice of Deaths, 1918-1919. Box #4. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Microfilm 706. RM of Hanover Records.

66. “What to do if you have Influenza,” SP, 16 October 1918, pp. 2-3.

67. “How to keep from getting Influenza,” SP, 16 October 1918, p. 2.

68. “What to do if you have influenza,” SP, 16 October 1918, pp. 2-3.

69. “Influenza: Some Interesting Facts About Its History, Prevention and Treatment,” SP, 23 October 1918, p. 3.

70. PAM. GR1548. Box 12. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minutes Books. “Declaration of Influenza as Contagious.” 11 October 1918.

71. K. F. Barkman Hardware and K. B. Reimer and Company, “Notice,” SP, 16 October 1918, 4; Maureen Lux, “The Bitter Flats”: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Saskatchewan,” Saskatchewan History Vol. 49 No. 1 (1997): p. 4.

72. K. F. Barkman Hardware and K. B. Reimer and Company, “Notice,” SP, 16 October 1918, p. 4.

73. H. W. Reimers, “Notice,” SP, 13 November 1918, p. 4

74. “Advertisement – War Bonds Taken,” SP, 11 December 1918, p. 5.

75. PAM. GR1548. Box 12. Province of Manitoba. Provincial Board of Health Minutes Books. 23 November 1918; Ian Carr and Robert Beamish, Manitoba Medicine: A Brief History, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 1999, p. 82.

76. MHCA. Bergthaler Mennonite Church Brotherhood Minutes, 1901-1934. Bergthaler Mennonite Church Minutes Books. 1893-1935. Vol. 727. 35 pgs.

77. Hiebert, Ed., Susanna Reimer’s Journals, 38-42; Royden Loewen, From the Inside Out: The Rural World of Mennonite Diarists, 1863 to 1929, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999, pp. 263-267.

78. PAM, GR571, Province of Manitoba, Department of Education, Summative Half-Yearly Returns for School Districts. 1918-1919. Microfilm 698, 699.

79. Nettie Neufeld, “Aganetha ‘Agnes’ Fast,” Preservings No. 10 Part Two (1997): p. 40.

80. “Locals,” SP, 20 November 1918, p. 2.

81. “Locals,” SP, 4 December 1918, p. 2.

82. PAM, GR571, Province of Manitoba, Department of Education, Summative Half-Yearly Returns for School Districts. 1918-1919. Microfilm 698, 699.; “Correspondence – Oklahoma,” Steinbach Post, 13 November 1918, p. 6; “Correspondence – Kansas,” Steinbach Post, 13 November 1918, 6; “Correspondence – Manitoba,” SP, 20 November 1918, p. 7.

83. Carr and Beamish, Manitoba Medicine, pp. 82-83; Lux, “The Bitter Flats,” p. 7.

84. “Locals,” SP, 4 December 1918, p. 4.

85. Hans Werner and Jenifer Waito. “‘One of Our Own’: Ethnicity Politics and the Medicalization of Childbirth in Manitoba,” Manitoba History No. 58 (June 2008): 3-4; Marlene Epp, “Catching Babies and Delivering the Dead: midwives and Undertakers in Mennonite Settlement Communities,” in Caregiving on the Periphery: Perspectives on Nursing and Midwifery in Canada, Ed. Myra Rutherdale, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010, 61-83.

86. Marlene Epp, “Catching Babies,” pp. 62-63.

87. Ibid, p. 71.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 12 November 2020