1928 Influenza Epidemic

During the summer of 1928, as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s supply ship SS Distributor was on its annual trip down the Mackenzie River (map), passengers onboard inadvertently spread a particularly virulent strain of influenza (flu) among the local Dene and Inuvialuit. Lacking previous exposure to this or a similar influenza strain this contact with infected passengers quickly became a deadly epidemic killing an estimated 10 to 15% of the Aboriginal population of the Northwest Territories. In some remote camps this influenza took a much higher percentage of the population and stories have been told of places where no one was left to bury the dead.

In and around the trading posts of the Mackenzie valley and Arctic coast the non-Aboriginal residents – Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the clergy, and Hudson’s Bay Company employees – undertook the task of caring for the sick. In these communities there were fewer deaths. Extraordinary measures were also taken to try to isolate infected groups from those who had yet to come in contact with this deadly influenza. Many lives were saved because of this.

People who wrote about this epidemic often noted the reaction the Dene and Inuvialuit had to contracting this disease. They tell of desperately sick people refusing help, giving up, and dying. They tell of people removing their clothing to try to escape the fever only to then die of pneumonia. They tell of families fleeing into the bush and unknowingly taking the disease with them. This was truly the darkest year in the recent history of the Northwest Territories.