Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Epidemics in northwest Saskatchewan

Old cemetery on La Loche Avenue. The La Loche victims of the 1936 influenza epidemic are buried here.

Epidemics at Portage La Loche, Ile a la Crosse, Beauval and Buffalo River.

Epidemics slowed the growth of the villages of the Upper Churchill River. 
A few are described below.

1866 Epidemic:  Portage La Loche

"There is at Portage La Loche a small HBC post frequented by about fifty Dene families and four or five Cree families."
"Arriving at the post I found the residents in great sorrow. All had lost several members of their families. 
Some parents had lost four to five children.........."       "Fifty nine people had died......." 
......wrote Father J.N. Caer of the Ile a la Crosse Mission. (translation)

Note: The Mission of Portage La Loche in 1866 included Garson Lake, Bull's House (where several Cree families were living), Turnor Lake, Swan Lake (Careen Lake) and several other villages. The population living on the shores of Lac La Loche in 3 or 4 villages (which included La Loche and West La Loche) was about 150 in 1866. The Mission population was about 275  (0r 55 families with an average of 5 people each).

1918-1919-1920 Epidemic: Ile a la Crosse

"Influenza came to visit in 1918 and took 85 of our parishioners. Then in 1919 and 1920 the fevers came again. First taking
those weakened by the influenza then attacking those that had not contracted it. The fevers took another one hundred 
people. Among the strongest of the population"
.........wrote Father Marius Rossignol of the Ile a la Crosse Mission 1922. (translation)

Note: These figures appear to be for the Ile a La Crosse Mission which included the villages of Ile a la Crosse, Patuanak, Buffalo River, Clear Lake etc.. The village of Ile a la Crosse lost 40 people in 1918.  

1936 Epidemic:  Beauval, Ile a la Crosse, Buffalo River and Portage La Loche

"In the course of last winter (1936) an epidemic of influenza and measles ravaged the north-west part of the Vicariat.
It first started in Beauval and struck almost all the population. Our Indian school and the rectory were
immediately converted into hospitals and despite the heroic efforts of the religious personnel there were 60 victims, 
20 at the school and more than 40 among the families of the Mission.
With an equal violence the epidemic arrived rapidly to our other Missions of the north particularly Ile a la Crosse,
Buffalo River (Dillon) and Portage La Loche. In each of these Missions the death toll was around 50 people." 
.....wrote Bishop Lajeunesse in 1937. (translation)

Mrs. Pierre Janvier and son Jean Paul August 1939
They are twisting a moosehide beside the cemetery.
This cemetery may have been in use for 20 years when this picture was taken. 
The 50 victims of an epidemic in 1936 must be buried here.

Smallpox 1782:

The smallpox epidemic of 1782 claimed a percentage of the Dene population of the Upper Churchill.
There may have been 625 Dene in the Upper Churchill area in 1782 with 450 remaining after the epidemic....a 25% casualty rate.

The estimated casualties range from 20% to 90%. 

"Traders at Fort Vermilion, Portage la Loche, Hudson House, Cumberland House, York Factory, Severn, and Churchill all reported the impact of smallpox in 1781-82. The trading houses of the Canadian Shield, like the missions of the south-west, became deadly centres of contagion, despite the fact that traders often tried to mitigate contact between sick and healthy Indians."....... Elizabeth Fenn

"The country being thus depopulated, the traders and their friends from Canada, who, from various causes already mentioned, were very much reduced in number, became confined to two parties, who began seriously to think of making permanent establishments on the Missinipi river, and at Athabasca; for which purpose, in 1781-2, they selected their best canoe-men, being ignorant that the small-pox penetrated that way. The most expeditious party got only in time to the Portage la Loche, or Mithy-Ouinigam, which divides the waters of the Missinipi from those that fall into the Elk river, to despatch one canoe strong-handed, and light-loaded, to that country; but, on their arrival there, they found, in every direction, the ravages of the small-pox; so that, from the great diminution of the natives, they returned in the spring with no more than seven packages of beaver. The strong woods and mountainous countries afforded a refuge to those who fled from the contagion of the plains; but they were so alarmed at the surrounding destruction, that they avoided the traders, and were dispirited from hunting, except for their subsistence. The traders, however, who returned into the country in the year 1782-3, found the inhabitants in some sort of tranquillity, and more numerous than they had reason to expect, so that their success was proportionably better."......Alexander Mackenzie "Voyages from Montreal"

A page from a La Loche booklet published in 1980. (photo by Ray Marnoch)

Summer population estimates of Lac La Loche                                                           
120 ?
post-smallpox epidemic estimate based on the 1825-1838-1881 populations
based on an English River Dene Population estimate of 469
based on the English River Dene Population of 489 (HBC Census)
based on Father Petitot account of 150 Dene camped at the Portage
Father Caer (based on a Mission population of 275 less epidemic casualties of 59)
Father Legoff (based on the Mission population of 230)
Bishop Grandin (based on a Lac La Loche/Garson Lake population of 200)
based on the English River Dene Population of 531 (Canada Census)
Father Penard’s count
Canada Census
Father Penard’s count.
  • "Dene" was used to describe all the residents of Lac La Loche until the treaties were signed. After the treaties most of the   residents were classified as Metis although they only spoke Dene (see "Ducharme Letter of 1922"). 
  • The residents of Lac La Loche "camped at the Portage" every year when the brigades arrived.