I seem to relate everything to Peter Bryce these days, and in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s win this week I found myself linking Peter Bryce to the news of the day through the lens of immigration. As has been well-outlined in the last few months, Trump’s position on immigration is exclusionary and based on the politics of fear and hate. On his website, Trump proposes building a wall between Mexico and the U-S, vetting immigrants to see if they share American values, and restricting immigration from places where terrorism is active. It seems Trump and his supporters only want immigrants who fit a narrow profile. This is not the first time that race and immigration have been tied together – they have also been issues in Canada.
Well before Peter Bryce joined the federal government, Canada first faced the issue of race and immigration. In the country’s early years, the government’s plan was to populate the prairies with the poor of Great Britain. This proved to be a disaster because poor immigrants from the slums of Britain’s big cities had no idea how to farm, much less survive the brutal weather extremes of the prairies. In 1896 Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior in the Laurier government, promoted the idea of bringing in immigrants from places like Scandinavia, Germany and the steppes of eastern Europe. Despite protests from Canadians who wanted the country to be populated only by the British, this radical idea worked, and more than two million immigrants would pour into the country in the next few years.
Peter Bryce was a supporter of immigration, and that may surprise many who see him strictly as the man who lobbied for better health conditions among Indigenous people. He was a believer in the colonial approach to economics and he saw Canada as an empty land full of economic potential; all it needed was a willing workforce to make it happen. Bryce also believed that Canada’s future lay in being an agrarian superpower, with numerous small communities servicing a vast agricultural factory which would help feed the world.
As the chief bureaucrat for the board of health in Ontario, he worked to improve health conditions for immigrants who were flooding into the slums of Toronto, and actively fought racism caused by the belief that immigrant populations brought disease to the city. Later in the federal government, he was the chief medical officer for two departments: Indian Affairs, and Immigration. His biggest impact in the Immigration department was the construction of hygienic and efficient immigration depots, and screening for communicable diseases.
But his support of immigration went deeper than that. In 1928, long after he had retired, Bryce published a collection of papers called The Value to Canada of the Continental Immigrant. The impetus for this collection was the narrative of the day that immigrants were to be feared because of their differences. By this time Bryce was in his mid 70s, but he had spent six months travelling Canada to visit many of the communities which arose from the immigration first promoted by Sir Clifford Sifton, who he also interviewed.
Among the places he visited were Castlegar B.C., where he spent a day with Doukhbours who had been persecuted in Russia because of their radical views. He also travelled to the Selkirk region of Manitoba, and central Saskatchewan and Alberta where communities of Scandinavians, Germans, and Ukrainians had been established. Bryce’s theme was consistent; these people shared Canadian values, and they were working hard to bring wealth to their communities and to the country in general.
Today among my friends and family are the descendants of those immigrants. My brother’s wife is from the German community in Fort Saskatchewan; my wife’s sister is married to a descendant of the Scandinavian community; a friend and colleague is a descendant of the Doukhbour community. The fact that we mix so easily and yet celebrate our ethnic backgrounds contradicts the racist politics which characterized Donald Trump’s campaign, and reminds me that strong voices like Peter Bryce’s are needed today, more than ever.