It was August of 2015 and we were on the last shoot of what had been a busy road trip. For five days Peter Campbell and I had been shooting for the documentary Finding Peter Bryce, and now we were going to interview 92-year-old Ellie Kerr. We were both tired from the shooting schedule and the heat, but we knew Ellie was energetic – we had watched her speak in front of a crowd of strangers just a few days before at a ceremony at Beechwood Cemetery for Dr. Peter H. Bryce.
“I remember him as a very warm, compassionate sort of person. Not soppy compassionate but he cared about people that was his main thing, and especially children,” she told the crowd of family and dignitaries.
Among the people at that ceremony were Perry Bellegarde, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Marie Wilson, a commissioner from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Cindy Blackstock the executive director of the First Nations Caring for Children Society. They were all there to see an historical plaque unveiled at the gravesite of Peter Bryce. Ellie was the matriarch of the Bryce family, and the last person alive who had memories of him.
I also wanted to meet her because of Ellie’s remarkable life. She was born in 1923 and lived much of her youth in Japan. Her father Cuthbert Robinson and mother Jean (Bryce) Robinson, ran an International School in Nagoya and except for a few furloughs the family had spent all of its time there until the late ‘30s when they left because of the impending war.
At university Ellie met the love of her life – an anthropology student named Moose Kerr. The summer after they got married Ellie and Moose were on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay where Moose was doing research for his Master’s degree, and where Moose and Ellie fell in love with the Indigenous people of the area. When he finished his degree, Moose got a posting as a teacher and principal in Aklavik, Northwest Territories and that’s where the family spent the next 12 years.
Ellie met me that afternoon with a big hug. In Ellie’s granny flat were pictures of their time in Aklavik. She told us stories of her life there – things like gatherings at the village hotel, and how locals would play traditional music and dance. At the time the federal government wanted to move everyone out of Aklavik to the new town of Inuvik. Moose helped them fight to stay, and when a new school was built there, locals insisted it be named after Moose Kerr. When their five daughters got older Moose and Ellie moved to Ottawa and settled in for the long term. Moose had died just a few years before and now Ellie was living at her daughter Peggy’s, and swimming fifty laps a day despite losing most of her sight to macular degeneration.
I showed her a picture of her as a child, sitting on Peter Bryce’s lap and after looking at it through a magnifying glass she proclaimed in a mocking tone, “I don’t look very happy, do I? I’m ashamed.” I got her to talk about Peter Bryce and she told a story of sitting in a garden with him while he told her about tomatoes. I asked her if her mother ever talked about Peter Bryce’s role in uncovering health conditions at residential schools.
“We never talked about it,” she says. “It was a sore topic – the poor guy was in disgrace.” She confessed that like the rest of us, she only found out about his role in the residential school story about five years before.
Peter and I shot with her for a couple of hours and after we wrapped up, her daughters Karen, Sharon, Mia, Mora and Peggy sat down with us and chatted over pie and coffee. That was the last time I saw Ellie; she died in June this year at age 93. When I heard the news I thought back to that afternoon and remembered her vitality and warmth – it was hard to believe she was gone. Rest In Peace Ellie – you lived an extraordinary life.