Peter Henderson Bryce: A man of conscience

PHB-1899-portrait-by-Lancefields-Ottawa-@-400-dpi-01d-grayscale-211x300by members of The Caring Society, The Legacy of Hope and St. Andrew’s Church Ottawa

On November 15, 1907, people in Ottawa read a shocking article on the front page of the Evening Citizen (now the Ottawa Citizen), revealing that Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, medical health officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, had found up to 25 percent of First Nations children were dying each year due to conditions in residential schools and lack of tuberculosis treatment. In one school, 69 percent of all children were dead by the age of 16. The deaths were wholly preventable.

As Dr. Bryce said, “medical science knows just what to do”: provide equitable tuberculosis treatment, separate sick children from healthy children to prevent transmission of the disease, ventilate the buildings, and provide proper nutrition and care.

Shockingly, the Government of Canada’s top official on the residential school file, Duncan Campbell Scott (who reported directly to Prime Minister Laurier) refused to take the action needed to save the children’s lives. One reader, Samuel Hume Blake, quipped “in that Canada fails to obviate the preventable cause of death it brings itself into unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”

Despite the Government of Canada’s active resistance to his reforms, Dr. Bryce continued his advocacy and was punished as a result. His research funding was cut, he was blocked from presenting his findings at medical conferences, and he was denied positions for which he was eminently qualified.

Bryce died in 1932 and was erased from Canadian history books, while the man who refused Bryce’s demands, Duncan Campbell Scott, was lauded as a loyal public servant and profound poet whose works were, and are, taught to Canadian school children.

Bryce’s story puts a red hot poker into the myth that people of the period did not know any better, that residential schools were simply a product of their time. In fact, people did know better. Bryce made his complaints public, but his report did not assemble enough public outrage to procure government action.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that at least 4,000 to 6,000 children died in the schools from preventable disease, abuse, and neglect. Many would have been saved had the government listened to Dr. Bryce or if the public had become significantly outraged that they had pressed the government for action.

Throughout the history of the residential school system, whistleblowers from all walks of life called on Canada to help the children. The government and many Canadians chose not to listen, or to do the bare minimum, with tragic results. Federal authorities knew. The churches knew. Many people of the time knew. And the residential school system continued for another 69 years until the last school closed in 1996.

Thousands of children died in those intervening years. Hundreds of indigenous communities were decimated by the forced removal of the children. The foundations for today’s social crises were laid down and made firm. We don’t have another 69 years to find solutions. We have work to do right now.

One hundred and ten years after Bryce’s report appeared on the front page of the Evening Citizen, we need to ask ourselves: What have we learned from the harms done at the residential schools and how has that changed our behaviour as citizens, and the behaviour of the government? Is the Government of Canada’s rhetoric on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples reflected in its actions to address contemporary injustices that residential school survivors and their descendants experience?

If not, then are we, the people of this period, sufficiently outraged that we will demand comprehensive government action? Are we willing, as individuals, to stand up and speak out for change and justice?
Using the life and work of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce as an inspiration, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Legacy of Hope Foundation have developed a new exhibition that explores how one man, in the early years of the 20th century and embedded in the federal Department of Indian Affairs, stood up, spoke out, and took responsibility for making change.

All are invited to St. Andrew’s (82 Kent Street) on Saturday, June 3, at 6:00 pm for the launch of the exhibition, Peter Henderson Bryce: A Man of Conscience.

Following the launch, Cindy Blackstock, John Milloy, Teresa Edwards, and others will participate in a panel discussion on the importance of being people of conscience, of taking responsibility for making change. The discussion will be moderated by CBC TV news anchor, Adrian Harewood.

Both events are open to the public and are free of charge.

The Bryce exhibition will also be on view at the church during Doors Open Ottawa from 1:00 to 4:00 pm on Saturday, June 4 and on Canada Day from 10:00 until 2:00 pm.

This project was funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Ottawa.