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!

Finding a Story to Tell

As most of you know my regular job is “teacher.” I don’t know when it happened, but sometime between 1998 and say 2007 or so, I stopped being a television guy and became a teacher. I didn’t really think I would go back to video production or journalism – I did small projects on and off, but they all seemed ho-hum. The voice of Milton Fruchtman, a mentor from the Banff Centre came back to haunt me.

“Don’t make a film unless you have something to say.” he used to say. It turned out I was saying enough in the classroom and I didn’t need to say anything else.

Until 2011, that is – that’s when I inherited a box full of my mother’s genealogical research. One of Mom’s retirement projects was to research her family, including my father’s side of the family. Growing up I knew my mother’s relatives quite well – we spent our summers with them. But my father’s family was a mystery – every once and a while over the dinner table, Mom and Dad would tell stories about eccentric Bryce relatives, but beyond having Christmas and Thanksgiving with my Aunt Helen’s family, the Bryces never figured in our lives.

In 2011, I started finding references to my great-grandfather, Dr. Peter H. Bryce. Dad had always talked about how he had written the first health code in Canada, and how the guy was eccentric. His proof was a house in Rockcliffe Park in Ottawa, and a crazy will that would never be allowed today.   What I found was that my great-grandfather had documented high mortality rates due to infectious disease in the Indian Residential School system in 1907. As a result of his findings and his insistence on advocating for improved health conditions for Indigenous people he was shuffled out of Indian Affairs, and he retired a bitter man in 1921. After writing a tell-all pamphlet about his experiences in Indian Affairs in 1922, my great-grandfather faded from the scene, to be forgotten by history. As I reached out and read more about Peter Bryce, I found a small group of people who had written about him and worked to keep his name alive. Then I found that his work was being cited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – after being in the shadows for more than century, Dr. Peter H. Bryce was back in the news. The difference was, this time someone was listening.

I decided to produce a documentary on Peter Bryce last summer when I met my second cousin Mary Ramsay – also a descendant for Peter Bryce’s. She had been a councilor in Walkerton in the late 90s and had read the health inspector’s reports about the town’s troublesome water system. “I told them, we have to deal with this” she told me at a Bryce reunion. “But they kept saying ‘no-no – if we are in trouble the inspectors will tell us.’ They wouldn’t listen.”

All of a sudden I knew I had a story to tell.