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.



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.




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.