Long Threads Running Deep

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There have been moments in the last few years when the threads of my past have come together in the journey to find Peter Bryce, and each time it has happened, I have reflected on how this story has been all around me, for so long.  One source of many of these threads has been Trent University where I graduated with a B.A. in November 1979.

The first thread connected to Trent is that one of the historians I found in my early work on Peter Bryce was a woman named Dr. Nancy Christie, who had done significant research on the Social Gospel movement.  Peter Bryce was a member of the Social Gospel which  recognized the problems inherent in the industrialized society of the 19th century and proposed proactive solutions.  He was an important Social Gospel figure because of his role in public health – a proactive way for government to improve the health of all.   I knew Nancy Christie as an undergrad at Trent – it was a very small place at the time with a student population not much larger than an urban high school.

As it turned out Nancy’s research was on a totally different aspect of the Social Gospel but the second connection to Trent was very strong.  One of the most important books on residential schools was Dr. John Milloy’s  A National Crime.  Even though it was published almost twenty years ago, Milloy’s book stands as an excellent overview of the Indian Residential School system.  We had the pleasure of interviewing John in his Ballieboro home last spring for the documentary Finding Peter Bryce – he had just retired from his career as a professor of history at Trent.

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But it is the third connection with Trent which perhaps touches me the most – and that is Wenjack Theatre.  I can recall many hours of lectures at Wenjack Theatre – it was a main lecture hall and pretty much everyone who went to Trent in my time has taken lectures there.  Of course, most of the rest of us are now familiar with the Wenjack name because Gord Downie has just released The Secret Path – a CD, graphic novel and animated film about the story of Chanie Wenjack, who froze to death trying to escape Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora.  His home was almost a thousand kilometers away and he tried to walk home with no food or shelter and wearing only a windbreaker.  Downie’s work is a deeply sad insight into the despair which many of these children felt.

According to the Trent University website, when Otonabee College was being built in 1973 a group of students from what is now the Indigenous Studies department successfully lobbied to have the theatre named after Chanie (who was called Charlie in the official records) Wenjack.  According to a release from the university in September 2016, “The students saw this dedication as an opportunity for Trent to strengthen its Indigenous Studies program, and establish itself as a force for change, hope, and a positive educational experience.”

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Wenjack Theatre

I learned about the Chanie Wenjack story when a friend of mine told me about it in 1978.  At the time the story had no resonance for me.  It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started hearing testimony from the TRC and researching my great-grandfather that the importance of that name became clear. When I heard about Downie’s project I thought back 38 years.  These threads have been with me for a long time and seem to run a long way.

The Peter Henderson Bryce Award

The first time I contacted the First Nations Caring for Children Society was because of the Peter Henderson Bryce Award.  At the time I had just begun researching my ancestor, and a search of the web had led me to the award page.  I was excited – just a few months before I barely knew anything about great-grandfather, and now I was finding someone who wanted to honour him for his work on residential schools.

I e-mailed the organization to talk about the write up for the award and ask about the Society.  Within a day or two I was talking on the phone with Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the organization.  “We’ve been looking for you,” she said.  “We’ve looked all over for descendants of Peter H. Bryce and you’re the first one we’ve found.”  By the end of the phone call, we had covered an immense amount of ground and Cindy had asked me to be on the jury for the award, which I have been on ever since.

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Giving out the Peter Henderson Bryce Award on Parliament Hill

Over the years the award has morphed into a two part affair.  Every second year the award is given out to someone who has produced outstanding work for the health and well-being of Indigenous children.  The first winner was Dr. Kent Saylor, a pediatrician from Montreal who worked in Indigenous public health at McGill, and also travelled up to the Hudson’s Bay watershed twice a year to work with Cree children.  Last year Alanis Obomsawim won for her long career in social justice documentary film-making, especially her film Hi-Ho Mistahay about the Shannen’s Dream movement.

But this is an alternate year, and in those years the award goes to children who have “individually or in groups advocate for the safety, health or well-being of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth.”  In recognition of Peter Bryce’s struggles in the Department of Indian Affairs, the award emphasizes people and groups who have had to overcome obstacles in the process.

The first winners of the children’s award were the Shannen’s Dream Club of Pierre Elliot Trudeau School in Gatineau Quebec.  These kids have given speeches and workshops and travelled all over to talk about Shannen’s Dream – they even presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the Montreal hearings.   I had the pleasure of giving these kids the award at a very cold, snowy ceremony on Parliament Hill in February 2014.

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February 2014

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A good crowd, despite the weather

Now that the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has issued its report, and Canada is beginning the path to reconciliation the involvement of our youth is crucial.  That’s why I was so pleased that we managed to partner with the National Centre on Truth and Reconciliation to produce Finding Heart for students in elementary and middle schools.  After finding out about the heart garden project, and working on the film I am curious and excited to hear what has been happening out there.  If you know of a youth group or individual who has advocated for Indigenous children, take a look here at the award write-up and follow the links to submit a nomination.  If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at andyj.bryce@gmail.com and I will try to answer or at least get you in touch with someone who can.

Ellie Kerr – A Life Well-lived

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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.

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“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.

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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.

Big News to start the New Year

I have some great news to start off 2016 – we (Peter Campbell of Gumboot Productions and I) are finalizing a collaboration with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) to produce a 20 minute educational film about Peter Bryce.   Of course, I am thrilled about this; the primary reason I embarked on this journey to find Peter Bryce is to give my ancestor the recognition he deserves. Putting this kind of material in front of school children goes a long way to meeting that goal.

We plan to have this production ready by the end of March, and that means we have a busy few months ahead of us. We are still working on the full documentary and we need to complete one more principal shoot in the spring. I will be spending much of this winter organizing that shoot, and finding funds to complete the longer film as well as writing and producing the educational film.

This educational film caps off a tremendous year for us. In March, we attended and filmed the naming ceremony for the Waakebiness-Bryce Indigenous Health Institute at the University of Toronto. We followed that up with a week-long shoot in Ottawa where we filmed the unveiling of an historical plaque honouring Peter Bryce at Beechwood Cemetery, visited Peter Bryce’s home in Rockcliffe and interviewed a wide variety of people, including Ellie Kerr – a grand-daughter of Peter Bryce who is perhaps the only person alive who remembers him.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about Charlene Bearhead, one of the key figures in this initiative. We first met her at the unveiling ceremony at Beechwood. Charlene is the Education Lead at the NCTR and it is her job to collaborate with Ministries of Education, school authorities, and Universities. She also supports the work of educators across the country to ensure that the critical truth about the history of Indian Residential Schools and reconciliation education are being delivered in classrooms.. Charlene told us how excited she was about the documentary, and followed up that conversation with a meeting in the fall – and that’s when the educational film really began to take shape. Her advocacy and appreciation of the story of Peter Bryce has given us extra momentum going into 2016, which promises to be an important year in the journey to find Peter Bryce.

 

 

Rooting Around Archives Pays Dividends

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It took me about ten months to read the script for a CBC radio show about Peter Bryce produced in 1976 called The Story of a National Crime. As I mentioned in last week’s post, a producer named Peter Haworth had stumbled across Peter H. Bryce’s story while working on another program about Duncan Campbell Scott. One of the curious aspects of Haworth’s story is his account of trying to find information about Peter H Bryce and discovering a file that had been cleaned out of vital information.

I had been given the script by my second cousin, Mary Robinson Ramsay. Her father Jock Robinson had gathered material about Peter H Bryce and Mary had found the file while clearing out his belongings just a couple of years ago. She gave me the file at a family reunion in August 2014 and I had quickly gone through the contents, and then put it away while I tended to more pressing issues. When I finally got around to reading the script, I was surprised by Haworth’s story and as I outlined last week, was inspired to look at the file myself

Meanwhile I began a search for a copy of the radio show. After talking to Deborah Wilson at CBC Victoria, I tracked down the CBC archivist who as it turned out, was away on paternity leave. I sent him an email and a couple of months later, he returned to work and took a look for it. From the script I had vital information: the name of the show, its production date, and the names of the producers – Peter Haworth and Norman Newton. I was sure CBC would have it but the archivist got back to me a few days later with disappointing news – there was no copy of the show at CBC.

Let’s fast forward to this morning when I was rooting around the B.C. Archive. Early on in my genealogical research I had searched the Archive for information about my grandfather who had worked in B.C. about one hundred years ago. I found more references to Peter Bryce (his father) instead, and that was when I realized there was much more to Peter’s story. I have gone off in a number of directions since then, but until this morning had not returned to the B.C. Archive. This time I struck gold – I found a record of a sound recording of “The Story of a National Crime.” How ironic that this valuable resource sits in the B.C. Archive, just a ten minute drive from my home.

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It turns out that producer Norman Newton who lived and died in B.C., had donated his files to the Archive, and among them is the above recording.   The B.C. Archive record clears up a couple of details which may have hampered the CBC Archivist. The airdate on B.C. Archive record is December 23, 1976. I had assumed the production date of November 13, 1976 which was on the script, would be the airdate. More importantly, I discovered that the documentary was produced for a series called Audience, which was produced at CBC Vancouver.

In terms of our documentary Finding Peter Bryce, this will give us a valuable element to the story. As well, the Archive also has a copy of the radio show on Duncan Campbell Scott, another valuable resource. But more importantly there is a collection of Norman Newton’s material. Both Newton and Haworth are dead; Newton died three years ago and Haworth passed away just last year. That collection may have information on the production of “The Story of a National Crime,” and may fill out another part of the Peter Bryce story. The journey to find Peter Bryce continues with more archival research.

Movie Trailer:  https://youtu.be/2QAAX8yN90E
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/PeterHBryce/

 

 

 

The Missing Files of Peter H Bryce

NACThe story as laid out by Producer Peter Haworth, is startling  Haworth was working on a documentary about my great-grandfather Peter Bryce for the CBC radio show Ideas in 1976. He had read about Peter Bryce while doing research on Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian poet who ran the Department of Indian Affairs for over 40 years. Haworth read Bryce’s 1922 pamphlet The Story of a National Crime and had successfully pitched a story to Ideas. That’s when he started to ask questions.

I began my search at the Department of Indian Affairs. “Yes” an official said, he had heard of Bryce. They had a file on him. Yes, the controversy had been documented. He seemed to remember that there were questions raised in the Commons about it. Would I phone back when he’d had a chance to look into it? I did so, but within that period of three hours his manner had changed. He was apparently “wrong” about the Commons debate. There was no record of it..No, they had nothing on Bryce, and anyway all the material from that period had been sent on to the National Archives.

At the Archives, I looked at Bryce’s file. It was empty except for an obituary: Peter Henderson Bryce (1853-1928). “It’s been stripped,” the archivist said. “That happens sometimes.” There was nothing in Hansard, either or anywhere else for that matter, about Bryce. Even the Archives catalogue, which seems to contain everything, did not list his pamphlet. Bryce might just was well have never existed.

When I read this last winter, I was familiar with some of my great-grandfather’s file because information from it was used in Dr. Adam Green’s thesis Humanitarian MD, but I had missed the opportunity to vet the file when I was doing research at the archive the year before. So, when my fellow producer Peter Campbell and I decided to do principal shooting in Ottawa in August, I put the archive on my To Do list, and filed a request to view Dr. Bryce’s personnel file.

Despite a couple of stumbles with Library and Archives Canada (I could write an entire column on that experience, but in the end they were helpful and accommodating) Peter and I managed to take a look at the file, and to my surprise, I found nothing to do with Bryce’s time at the Department of Indian Affairs. He had been relieved of his duties at DIA in 1913, but this file only extended back to 1919, the period from 1904 until 1918 was entirely missing. Here’s my reaction as captured by Peter Campbell:

This fall I filed an Access to Information request and a couple of weeks later I received a notice that said there was nothing confidential in the file and that I had indeed seen the entire Peter Henderson Bryce file. Is it coincidence that these files are missing? Well, my bet is the file was cleaned out sometime in the distant past – perhaps 1932, when Peter Bryce died, or maybe in 1976 when Peter Haworth started asking questions. We will probably never know, but there are more questions to ask.  We are waiting to hear back from the Archive on the process of how personnel files get moved from government departments to the archive, and then we will try to determine if the file was cleaned out before or after it was stored.

Either way, this episode shows how at some point, whether it be in Peter Bryce’s lifetime, in Duncan Campbell Scott’s tenure at Indian Affairs, or some later time, someone saw fit to erase his role in the DIA from the records of government.

 

 

 

How a High School Student Challenged the Historical Record

I love this story for three reasons.  First it shows the power of the Internet – there is just so much information out there that if you can find a way to leverage it, you can contradict a famous authority on a subject.  Second, I love the poise this young woman showed in responding to the criticisms of her work. And finally it reminds me that history is often incomplete, if not totally incorrect and that goes right to the heart of why I decided to do a documentary on my great-grandfather.

When I began my research I realized there wasn’t even a public building named after my great-grandfather Dr. Peter H. Bryce, and the only public recognition I could find for him was the Peter H. Bryce Award, established by the First Nations Caring Society. One of the most satisfying aspects of working on Finding Peter Bryce has been watching the recognition grow.  The School of Public Health at U of T has established the Waakebiness Bryce School of Public Health, and very soon Beechwood Cemetery. which is Canada’s National Cemetery, will be unveiling an historical plaque in Peter Bryce’s honour. I’ll be there with a film crew to witness the event and it will become part of Finding Peter Bryce

But I digress – back to the article.  It’s a great read about contradicting the narratives of the past – enjoy!

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/01/the-teen-who-exposed-a-professor-s-myth.html