A steam ship carrying flu almost a century ago was NWT’s first brush with pandemic, according to Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakelaya.
Last Thursday, he listened to the radio as he prepared for the April 21 release of his new book We Remember the Coming of the Whiteman, an adaptation of the film he first released more than 40 years ago in 1976. He heard stories of cancelled sports seasons, hurried political statements and the worried spread of COVID-19.
It had historical echoes. Decades ago, Yakelaya spoke to an elder about the N.W.T.’s first flu outbreak. He was conducting interviews for his first film, We Remember, that would inspire the new book.
Yakelaya was in his early 20s when he heard an elder, his uncle Johnny Lennie, share the history. Lennie was about 13 at the time of outbreak, said Yakelaya.
In the summer of 1928, a Hudson’s Bay paddle steamer called the SS Distributor, sailed its annual supply route down the Mackenzie River, according to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
As the ship made its deliveries along the river, someone on board carried a virus. Yakelaya believed it was Spanish Flu, an epidemic that infected millions following the first world war a decade earlier.
For the Dene and Inuvialuit along the waterway who hadn’t built up an immunity, the illness was new. With the spread of flu, “the white man introduced them to a new way to die,” Yakelaya recalled the elder telling him.
Before the outbreak, there were deaths by old age, accidents, and violence but never the flu, said Yakelaya.
When the illness arrived in Yakelaya’s home community of Tulita, 50 elders died in seven days, he said. Yakelaya heard stories of how illness hit the community, slowly, then all at once as the illness multiplied.
That summer, community members found the victims overcome by the heat floating in the Mackenzie River, or fallen where they stood in the grass, he said.
“That what (my) Uncle Johnny said. For that whole week as a young man, all he did was dig graves and all the young boys and men would do that as they were bringing more bodies to the graveyard,” said Yakelaya.
The toll was devastating. As communities lost elders, they also lost the stories and traditions they held.
“We lost a lot of good history books there,” said Yakelaya.
It came by surprise. Unlike the outbreak of COVID-19,there was no mass social media when the SS Distributor pulled ashore on the banks of the Mackenzie River, said Yakelaya.
“Those days, they didn’t (know). They had no idea. What the hell this was, how they’re going to deal with it, how to treat it,” he said. “It really did alter the Dene, in many ways, the sicknesses that came.”
The impact was equally far-ranging. An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the Indigenous population in territory died in the outbreak, according to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
While it eventually subsided, Yakelaya said another respiratory illness, tuberculosis, has never been fully eradicated in the North.
Yakelaya never recorded that elder’s story, but it formed the basis of his first film at 24. After the documentary wrapped, Sarah Stewart, the book’s editor, compiled all the material.
Yakelaya forgot about the interviews for the film he collected until about six months ago. Stewart approached him and suggested publishing the book. The book’s April release coincides with a remastered version of Yakelaya’s film.
Yakelaya said he believed the piece was relevant, with many of his interviews paralleling today’s pandemic. The records show their perspective on life changing before their eyes, he said, and the stories, like those of the flu outbreak, from eyewitnesses — the first time it ever happened.
“It was really the first time native Northerners, elders were talking to media, especially television media,” he said. “It breaks a lot of ground.”