Peter Bryce and The White Plague

According to the World Health Organization, World Tuberculosis Day is marked every March 24, on the day in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch announced that he had found the cause of tuberculosis, the TB Bacillus.  According to the WHO site, at the time “TB was raging through Europe and the Americas, causing the death of one out of seven people.”

Once I saw that statistic, I understood more clearly why Peter H. Bryce had decided to pursue public health over neurology.  He had studied in Paris with some of the pioneers of neurology, but then he came home to Canada and went into the civil service in order to work on public health issues, including TB.  Public health held none of the prestige (not to mention compensation) of neurology and I had always wondered why he chose it.

But when I think of one in seven people, I think of a class of 27 students I teach at the moment.  In that class, about four people would die of tuberculosis if this were the late 19th century.  In 1882, the same year Koch identified the bacillus, Bryce joined the civil service in Ontario and started working on the first public health code in Canada – a document designed to reduce such death tolls.

When Peter Bryce reported on the appalling health conditions in the Indian Residential School system in 1907, most of the deaths were caused by TB.  By then, in most of Canada the death rate due to tuberculosis had been reduced dramatically. But in the IRS system nearly one-quarter of all children would die or were dying of TB.  When the story broke in the Ottawa Citizen on November 15, 1907, the headline was Schools Aid White Plague – white plague being a popular description of tuberculosis at the time.

Tuberculosis impacted Peter Bryce throughout his life.  A note in my family tree says that Peter’s sister Katherine died of TB in 1876 at the age of 17.  Further, Bryce’s son Henderson died of TB on December 31, 1931 at the age of 42.  Henderson was the only one of Peter Bryce’s six children who went into medicine.  After graduating from the University of Toronto with his medical degree, Henderson went to Haida Gwaii and worked as a doctor in Port Clemons and later at Stave Falls in the Lower Mainland where a huge hydroelectric dam was being built. Later, he did a residency in surgery at the University of Chicago and became the head of surgery at Vancouver General Hospital before discovering he had TB.

henderson_lynde_3

Dr. Henderson Bryce, ca. 1914

This is where the story gets personal for me, because Henderson was my grandfather and this is my family’s story. Granddad found out that he had TB sometime after my Aunt Helen was born in 1916.  At the time, wisdom was that he would have a better chance of surviving if he moved to a drier part of the world, and so Henderson took a locum assignment in Princeton B.C., where my father was born, before settling in Kelowna in 1920.  It seems Henderson was in remission for much of this time, because he worked at Kelowna General Hospital for a few years, but by the late 1920s, the TB had re-emerged, and he was dying.

grandfather and family 1927 upload

Grandmother Jessie, Aunt Helen, my father Bill and Grandfather Henderson Bryce, 1927

A few years ago my Aunt Helen (who was 15 in 1931) told me she remembered taking the ferry up Okanagan Lake to meet her Uncle Bill, who had been sent by Peter Bryce (my Aunt called him “the old man”) to be with his brother, and to take the body back to Ottawa for burial.  Shortly after my grandfather died on New Year’s Eve 1931, Uncle Bill transported his body back to Ottawa by train, arriving in time to hold a funeral service on January 9th.

A few days later Peter Bryce came home and told his family he was leaving to take a trip to the West Indies the next day.  On January 12, he got on the Empress of Australia at New York City, and two days later on January 14, 1932, Peter H. Bryce died in his cabin, alone.

It is a tragedy that a man who did so much for so many, died alone at sea with the knowledge that the very disease he had spent his life fighting, had killed his son.  But for me the real tragedy is that my father lost his father at the age of 13, and moreover watched his father die so slowly and painfully.  The ravages of TB have the power to reach across generations, as so many in the Indigenous community know all too well.

A 15-year-old Canadian girl died of tuberculosis in January this year. Her name was Ileen Kooneeliusie and she was from the hamlet of Qikiqtarjuag in Nunavut. Andre Picard in the Globe and Mail writes about her death and the high prevalence of TB in the territory (in the interests of giving credit where it is due, the story was first told by Nick Murray of the CBC).  In Canada, 4.7 people out of every 100,000 die of tuberculosis.  In Nunavut, the rate is 229.6 per 100,000.  It’s a disease that can be stopped, but early detection is a key, and Picard notes that this child’s death was caused by cultural and language differences

The mother of Ileen Kooneeliusie said that the principal barrier to getting care for her daughter was an inability to communicate the severity of her condition – because none of the nurses at the clinic spoke Inuktitut.  She was not taken seriously.  The language gap, and the condescension of health workers from away, have consistently been identified as an impediment to care in Nunavut and other Indigenous communities.

Peter Bryce would not be surprised.

henderson_lynde

At the Bryce family plot in Beechwood cemetery

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

 

The Stories of Those Who Worked in Residential Schools

Far be it for me to comment on the speech defending the residential school system, given by Ontario Senator Lynn Beyak this week.  People with far greater authority and much more knowledge than I have already done that. But there is something that Beyak said that sparked my interest, and that was her acknowledgement of the people who actually worked in the schools with those children. “I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part,” she said.

This is an opportunity to consider those who worked on the frontlines. For one moment, let’s set aside the obvioiusly mentally ill and evil people who lurked there and assume that there were good, competent people who served in that system.  I wonder what kind of trauma they suffered from working in some of those schools? Certainly, it won’t compare with the trauma suffered by the children, but I am sure that many people were scarred by what they saw and experienced.

John Milloy, in his book A National Crime, outlines what happened to some of them, and how their complaints and concerns were handled by Duncan Campbell Scott.  It is important to remember the big picture here – this was an underfunded system, and these schools were often caught in a bureaucratic dance between the federal government and the churches.  Milloy says the impact of these two factors can be seen at the level of the teachers, principals and administrators who ran those schools.

For many staff the schools were not peaceful, rewarding places to work; they were not havens of civilization. Rather they were sites of struggle against poverty, the result of underfunding, and, of course, against cultural difference and, therefore against the children themselves. Locked away in an establishment often distant from non-Aboriginal settlements, always impenetrable to the gaze of almost everyone in Canada, they carried on this struggle against the children and their culture within an atmosphere of considerable stress, fatigue, and anxiety.  The conditions may well have dulled the staffs’ sensitivity to the children’s hunger, ill-kept look and illness, and often perhaps inevitably, pushed the application of discipline over the line into physical abuse and transformed what was to be a culture of care into one of violence.

Milloy’s best example of a competent man thrown into a dysfunctional system is the Reverend Lett, who along with his wife and baby arrived at St. George’s school in 1923.  The building was falling apart, the farm and orchards were neglected and the children were starving.  The family lived in the main school building, primarily in one bedroom.  The living and dining rooms were public and shared with the other members of the staff, with whom they also shared a bath and toilet.  On one side of their living quarters was the students’ dining room; on the floor above were the dormitories, and below were the play rooms.  They got little to no peace or privacy, and the time and effort required to run the school brought Mrs. Lett to the point of breakdown.  Reverend Lett wrote to Duncan Campbell Scott about the situation to no avail and it would be another four years before the Department of Indian Affairs would do anything about his calls for a new and better facility.

Milloy also recounts how Scott dealt with other letters of complaint from staff and school administrators and even other departmental officials.  W. H. Graham, an inspector in the western provinces wrote to Scott about the poor conditions at Round Lake over a number of years.  Finally Scott answered him and denounced his most detailed report because it was based on complaints from a teacher named Miss Affleck.  In Scott’s mind, Affleck was a malcontent to be ignored because she had reported on the incompetence of her principal (who fired her upon learning of the complaint).  We are lucky to have at least this one account – most of the complaints submitted by staff at the schools were not even put on file.

The residential school system never paid well enough to attract trained teachers, so the people who worked in those schools often had no experience or qualification. Some came from the churches, where residential school work was considered “mission” service.  For many poor people who couldn’t afford to go to college, working in a residential school was the only way to become a teacher. I can just imagine the shock of being a young person, just away from home, going to work in a remote residential school where the children were uncared-for and unloved, where there was no pretense of teaching them anything, and where the strap was the only method of control.  I can also imagine their horror in those schools where the abuse was sexual as well as physical.

So perhaps Senator Beyak is right – perhaps it’s time to hear the stories of those who worked at those schools.  Let’s hear from the descendants of people like Reverend Lett, W.H. Graham, and Miss Affleck, and the many others who went to work in those schools.  Tell the family stories, and bear witness to this part of our history.   But be prepared – the evidence indicates those stories will not likely recount the remarkable works and good deeds imagined by the Senator.

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

The Connection between Peter Bryce and Alexander Graham Bell

It was one of those stories that my Mother would tell us when the talk around the kitchen table got to family matters. “You know the Bryces knew Alexander Graham Bell,” she would say. Usually when Mom said that we would turn to our Dad who was ambivalent about his Bryce relatives and ask him, and he would say something noncommittal.

“They were all Scottish and they lived in the same place or something,” he would say before changing the topic.

It was such a fantastic assertion, that I never really talked about it as a kid. Later on I did some research into the rumour and came up empty. I had assumed the Bryces knew the Bells in Scotland. But the Bells were from Edinburgh, while the Bryces came from the village of Doune – north and west of Edinburgh. It was unlikely they knew each other in Scotland.  Also, the Bryces emigrated in 1843 and the Bells in 1870, disproving the idea that perhaps our ancestors emigrated with the Bells.

The Bell family moved to the new world after Alexander Graham’s brother Edward had died of tuberculosis.  Alexander Graham himself was considered “sickly” and his father wanted him to live in a place with better air – both Edinburgh and London had pollution problems due to the heavy use of coal for heating and power.  So in 1870, the Bell family bought a farmhouse and ten acres at Tutela Heights in the south end of Brantford.

bell-homstead-12

The Bell Homestead at Tutela Heights

I had known from grade school that the Bells had lived in Brantford, but I didn’t make the connection that maybe the Bells and the Bryces really did know each other until I read The Work of Their Hands, a history of the village written by Dr. Sharon Jaeger. It turns out that Bell had carried out a key experiment using the Ellis General Store in Mount Pleasant.  He had strung wires between Tutela Heights and Mount Pleasant – a distance of about four miles.  He used the store as his receiving post, since it had a telegraph office and the needed infrastructure.  Bell had instructed his uncle David, who was back at the Bell homestead, to quote Shakespeare into the machine at an appointed time.  Jaeger quotes Bell’s recollection from a speech he gave 30 years later.

Bell later recalled during a 1906 speech for the Brantford Board of Trade that he sat in Mr. Ellis’ store and waited “with the receiver and my watch in my hand.” Suddenly he heard a preliminary cough, and then the words, “to be or not to be.” “Gentlemen,” exclaimed Dr. Bell, “it was to be…and for the first time between Brantford and Mount Pleasant.”

A week later Bell made the first long distance call between Brantford and Paris, Ontario and that call went down in history, while the experiment in Mount Pleasant was forgotten. But what really caught my attention was an illustration in The Work of Their Hands.

heritage book-FINAL

It turns out that not only did the Bryces know the Bells, but they witnessed this important episode of history.  I have yet to find any reference to this event in Peter Bryce’s writing, but one has to wonder how much impact this event would have had on him.  Peter Bryce was 23 years old at the time and going to school at the University of Toronto.

“It was the forefront of just about everything to do with our modern society,” says Brantford historian Bill Darfler.  “It was the beginning of scientific exploration for just about anything you can imagine. The medical world went through a revolution at that time.  Our political system changed – our country confederated in 1867.”

This event signifies what we often forget about Peter Bryce.  It’s easy to look at his portrait with the stiff white collar and walrus moustache and think of him as old-fashioned.  But nothing could be further from the truth – he was on the cutting edge of medicine and science at a time when change was in the air.   Bell’s telephone would transform society, but so would Bryce’s vision for good public health.  And for one brief evening the two  came together at the Ellis General Store in Mount Pleasant, Ontario.

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

Peter Bryce and the Six Nations Reserve

“So let’s go see the downtown,” said Peter Campbell, the director of Finding Peter Bryce.  We were driving down Mount Pleasant Road just south of Brantford, and we were coming up to a four way stop.  There was a house on one corner, a bistro on another, and across the street a market with a windmill on top and on the other corner, a cemetery.

“This is it,” I told him.  “This is all there is to Mount Pleasant.”

Peter wanted a downtown to shoot some incidental scenes, and he had imagined Mount Pleasant to be a classic Ontario downtown with brick buildings and lamp posts and the like (the next day we shot in Port Hope, which was just the kind of place Peter was imagining).  Mount Pleasant is more like a collection of houses – hardly noticeable as a community anymore.  But 160 years ago, this village represented opportunity for settlers.  The land was fertile, and Mount Pleasant was beside the Grand River which emptied into Lake Erie and gave access to markets across the lake in the U.S. It was an important transportation route in the days before railroads or even basic roads.  Mount Pleasant had location, location, location.

Mount Pleasant is also remarkable because it was the first plot of land leased out to settlers by Six Nations Chief Joseph Brant.  The Six Nations are made up of the six Iroquois bands which supported the British in the American Revolutionary War.  To reward their Indigenous allies (who were also facing punishment and perhaps death in the U.S.A.), the British offered them the Haldimand tract in what is now Ontario.  It was an enormous grant – 10 miles on either side of the Grand River from Lake Erie to what is now Mount Forest.  But Chief Joseph Brant started leasing out land to settlers.  He figured the land would bring in money, and encourage the settlers and Indigenous to work together.  He didn’t see the Indigenous lifestyle of hunting and trapping in the future and wanted his people to adopt the agricultural lifestyle.  At least, that’s the history that we have inherited as the descendants of the settlers. As I have found on this journey more than once, Indigenous history and Settler history are different in their interpretations.  My next piece of research will be to flesh out how the Indigenous view their relationship with Europeans at that time.  This should help to answer a question that is core to Peter Bryce’s story; Did he have regular contact with Indigenous people while growing up?

“Peter Bryce had acquired a sensitivity to the Aboriginal population,” says historian Bill Darfleur. “I’m sure that’s because Six Nations is on the other side of the town line. “

It’s not the first time I have heard this interpretation; my cousin Kevin Best had talked to me about this more than a year before.  Kevin knows more about the Indigenous world, than any other non-Indigenous person I have met.  Well before Kevin knew about his ancestor’s advocacy of Indigenous people, he had developed a deep appreciation for Indigenous culture and spirituality.    At a ceremony in Toronto in 2015, Kevin offered me his eagle feather as support when I was about to give a thank you speech on behalf of the family.  It was a generous and personal offering and I was touched.

“There was definitely contact in the early days,” says Kevin.  “The Haudenosawne (Iroquois confederacy) had a real problem at Six Nations because so many of their men had been killed fighting for the British. On the other hand many of the settlers around Mount Pleasant were officers from the British military who were single.  There was a lot of intermarriage.”

It’s easy to find the results of this intermarriage.  We were hosted in Mount Pleasant by Linda Guest, who ran a B&B and is a descendant of Joseph Brant’s assistant, Epaphras Phelps.  He was from the Mohawk valley of upper New York state and he moved to the area and married a Mohawk woman named Esther Hill in 1798.  Despite some rocky moments during the war of 1812 when Epaphras predicted the Americans would win and was charged with treason for his comments, the Phelps family has many descendants living in the Mount Pleasant area.

But all of this happened well before George and Catherine Bryce (Peter’s parents) arrived in 1843.  According to the book The Work of their Hands, by the 1840s Mount Pleasant was well established as a commercial centre, and the fertile land and active farming community was bringing money in for the merchants and tradesmen of the village.

The Work of Their Hands is an interesting story all on its own. The book was commissioned by a group called Heritage Mount Pleasant.  It hired a researcher from the University of Waterloo named Dr. Sharon Jaeger to research and write about Mount Pleasant from 1799 to 1899. Remarkably this book is 296 pages long, and among other things, it outlines how the two Bryce brothers (Peter and George) played major roles in the development of Canada.  But the village was also home to Arthur Sturgis Hardy, who went on to become Premier of Ontario.  As Premier, Hardy would often lock horns with Dr. Emily Stowe on suffragette issues.   Stowe was the first female medical doctor in Canada, and she had been educated in Mount Pleasant.

work-of-hands

In the book, Jaeger quotes local journalist Jean Waldie who in 1854 describes Mount Pleasant as a hub of activity with inns, taverns and stores, a carriage shop and at least one blacksmith.  In this era a number of substantial homes were built, and many of them still line Mount Pleasant Road.  It was the heyday for Mount Pleasant, and all that economic activity helped the Bryce, Hardy and Stowe children to have influential lives in the new country of Canada.

But history has not been kind to Mount Pleasant.  By the end of the 19th century, much of the industry in Mount Pleasant had moved to nearby Brantford and by the time of the automobile in the 20th century, Mount Pleasant’s future as a sleepy village was cemented.

What keeps me going on this journey is how I peel back a layer of history, only to find another.  In researching Mount Pleasant I found a story about a village with great prospects which got left behind by history. It’s a story that has been repeated dozens of times in Canada.  But now I am left wondering about the next layer, and that involves the other people in this story – the people of Six Nations. In researching that story, I suspect I will find yet another layer that will tell me more about this country.  Such is the nature of history.

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

Pictures from the Past

At first my research into Peter Bryce was part of a larger genealogical project. My father did not talk much about his family and I’m not sure he knew that much.  But I was curious about them and over the years I had been encouraged by my mother.

“You should look into those Bryces,” she said. “They’re a very interesting family.” My mother formed friendships with some of the women of the Bryce family, especially Katherine Best. From her, my mother collected a file of information.  After my mother passed away, I got her box of research, including a full Bryce family tree complete with birth and death dates, written in my mother’s hand.   I made copies of it, and still use it to this day when yet another cousin pops up and I have to figure out how we are related.

When I began looking into the Bryces, the only thing I really knew was family’s roots in Canada lay in Mount Pleasant, Ontario.   So I began my genealogical research with a simple internet search, using keywords like Bryce, Mount Pleasant, and so on. One of my first finds was this picture.

brycebros-corrected

The description from the Brant County Public Digital Archive says This photograph depicts three of the Bryce brothers at the time of the golden wedding anniversary of George Bryce, Sr. in the 1890s. His two brothers who sailed to North America, and later settled in the United States, came to visit him.  One of these men was my great-great-grandfather, George Bryce.  But which one?

After reading more from my mother’s files and doing more research, a picture of the Bryces emerged.  In 1843, my ancestor George Bryce, his wife Catherine, and his two brothers left  their home in Doune, Scotland and emigrated to North America.  Scotland was in the midst of the Highland clearances and the brothers likely thought their prospects would be better in the new world. George was a blacksmith, and his brothers were bakers so they had skills which would be useful in the United States or Upper Canada.

They sailed to New York City and made their way up to Upper Canada through the Erie Canal, and then across the Great Lakes.  After scouting out his prospects, George set up shop in Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada – a community in the midst of prosperous farms, all of which would need the help of a blacksmith at one time or another.  The other brothers moved to the United States.

George Bryce Sr. became an important figure in his community.  He was prominent in the Presbyterian Church, and chaired the board to construct the building which still stands on Mount Pleasant Avenue.  He was also the Justice of the Peace, and his obituary in the local paper shows attendance at his funeral was overflowing.  George Bryce led a full and generous life, the kind of life he could not have led back home in Scotland.

I made an educated guess and decided the man on the right was George Bryce.  He was heavyset, like a blacksmith.  He also looked like George Bryce Jr. from the next generation – Peter Henderson Bryce’s brother (the Bryce family carried on the tradition of naming descendants after their ancestors for many years – there are many Peters and Georges).  The other two men didn’t look like they had done the heavy labour of the blacksmith.  But I kept looking at the faces, trying to imagine who they resembled among my brothers and cousins.

It would be enough for an immigrant family to Canada to have a child like Peter H. Bryce who would make such a distinguished contribution to his country.  But George Jr. also made a major contribution.

george_bryce_jr

George Bryce Jr.

George Jr. earned a degree in theology at the University of Toronto in 1871, before striking out for the frontier prairie city of Winnipeg where he arrived shortly after the first Riel Rebellion.  George founded and was the first minister of Knox Presbyterian Church, and was involved with the founding of the University of Manitoba, while writing histories about Canada and Manitoba.

About a month after I published the photo of the three brothers on a genealogical site, I was contacted by a distant cousin in Chicago who was also descended from one of the brothers.  She explained that I had the people mixed up – George was the man in the middle looking at the camera with a mixture of curiosity and irritation.  The man on the left was Willie, who had moved to Cincinnati, and the man on the right was Peter Forbes Bryce. This was a picture of the three adventurers who fifty years before had sailed from their home to make their fortune and now here they were, old men celebrating their success.

george_bryce_senior

George Bryce, Sr.

As I go through this journey to find Peter Bryce, I always feel the presence of my mother.  She knew I was interested in history and genealogy, and was careful to plant the seeds that led me to find this story.  So, on what would have been her 91st birthday, I tip my hat to Mom and thank her for many gifts, the story of Peter Bryce included.

mom_1999

Joan (Cottrill) Bryce

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

Peter Bryce Anticipates the Modern Welfare State

Over the last few weeks I have been laying out the history of Peter Bryce’s involvement with residential schools and public health in Canada’s early years.  I have made the argument that he is one of the key figures in both of these fields and that he is one of the unknown characters of Canadian history.  But on my last post of 2016,  I want to advance that argument one step further, to say that Peter Bryce’s actions anticipated Canada’s modern welfare state.

The woman who has said this most clearly is Megan Sproule-Jones.  In 1996 she published Crusading for the Forgotten: Dr. Peter Bryce, Public Heath, and Prairie Native Residential Schools in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.  In this article she outlines the rise of the public health movement and its impact on the Indigenous community through Peter Bryce’s efforts.  It turns out Bryce was not alone in his approach to solving the problems of Canadian society in the late 19th century.  He had grown up in a prominent Presbyterian family in Ontario, and was a member of a movement called the Social Gospel which had emerged from the pulpit-driven religion of his father’s generation.

“That movement emerged in response to Canada’s transition from a rural society to an urban one,” says Sproule-Jones.  “For those Christians the gospel was a call to action. They felt an obligation to help those in society who may not have been able to help themselves.  Those Christians formed organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association, the YWCA and the Salvation Army.  They were all out there working to deal with issues like poverty, hunger, poor sanitation, and poor housing.”

For Peter Bryce, public health brought together his two great personal influences: science and religion.  By using the fundamentals of scientific research he could prove how public health measures could result in social change and uphold a sense of morality and justice – good public health is for everyone since no one group in society is totally isolated from the rest.  The problem for the public health movement was that the federal government had remained resistant to legislation and public policy surrounding public health.  Going to work for the federal government in 1904 would have been an important step for Bryce.

“They were trying to lobby the government for changes in legislation and they believed firmly that government had a role to play in insuring the health and welfare of all Canadians,” says Sproule-Jones. “They were never very successful in convincing the federal government of that so I would imagine that when Peter Bryce had this opportunity to take on the role of Chief Medical Officer, he would have been very excited because he would have been right in there with the people would have been framing public policy and legislation that could have affected change. I’m sure that would have been his hope when he took on that position.”

Perhaps Bryce knew that he would have a difficult path in the federal government.  At Queen’s Park he held considerable influence, but in Ottawa he would have  to answer to layers of bureaucracy above him, and he would be working for a government whose main focus was economic expansion.  It is little wonder that he met resistance, but as Cindy Blackstock says, “Someone had to be first – someone had to blaze that trail, and that person was your great-grandfather.”

“I think Peter Bryce really anticipated the rise of the welfare state in Canada” says Sproule-Jones.  “He was a very strong proponent of government intervention.  He believed quite firmly that the government did a have a role to play in the health and the well-being of Canadians.  He was calling for government intervention in Indigenous health and Indigenous education at a time when many people really still believed in a more ‘fend-for-yourself’ approach – a laissez-faire principle that people should really be able to look after themselves.“

To put this in perspective, when the Social Gospel finally ran out of steam in the 1920s, it left a vacuum filled by the Canadian Commonwealth Federation in 1932.  The CCF’s early leadership included figures like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas, both of  whom had been figures in the Social Gospel just a few years before.   The CCF, and later the New Democratic Party would be effective advocates for the modern welfare state, and without them social benefits such as socialized medicine may never have happened.

I will be taking a break over the holidays but will be back with more about Peter Bryce in the new year.

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com

Peter Bryce Debunked the Myths of His Time

It is easy to stand back from the story of Peter Henderson Bryce, and wonder just what all the fuss is about.  After all, as my second cousin David put it, “He was only doing his job.” It is the summer of 2014, the day after a Bryce family reunion where I had met dozens of other descendants of Peter Bryce – people I didn’t even know existed just a few months before.  We are sitting around the remains of breakfast when the topic comes up.  In today’s context, the actions of Peter Bryce seem relatively innocent; he was asked to go out and report on the conditions in residential schools and make recommendations to the government about a course of action, and that’s just what he did.

A year after that breakfast, Peter Campbell and I are interviewing Marie Wilson at a ceremony to unveil a plaque in Peter Bryce’s honour at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.  Her very presence at the ceremony means that indeed there was something very special about what Peter Bryce did.

“What is heroic about doing what you should be doing?” asks Wilson.  She was one of three commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  She heard thousands of hours of testimony from residential school survivors, and read over the information and evidence gathered by the Commission.  “What is heroic about doing the right thing?  What is heroic about practicing your profession to the best standards you have sworn your career to?

“It’s heroic because the circumstances and the political framework of the day would not allow him to do the normal right thing,”

Dr. Adam Green agrees; in the late 1990s he was working on his Masters’ degree at Queen’s University when he ran across Peter Bryce.

“I am looking in one class at the early Canadian labour movement; I’m in another looking very much at what is called state formation in the early 20th century.  Ultimately in doing research for two different papers, I come across Peter Bryce and this is because on one hand he is producing material on immigration and manpower, and on the other hand he is also working on the Aboriginal file,” says Green.  We are interviewing him in the dining room of his suburban Ottawa home.  Now Adam Green is a researcher for the federal government who also teaches courses in history at the University of Ottawa.  All around us, just out of camera shot, are high chairs and kids’ toys.  His life has moved on since researching and writing about Peter Bryce, twenty years ago.

“I was shocked that I actually found somebody who was perfectly at the centre of all of this,” says Green.  “From a very human angle he’s turning science into something that is debunking every major myth you can think about in the early 20th century. “

Adam Green’s thesis Humanitarian, M.D.: Dr. Peter H. Bryce’s Contributions to Canadian Federal Native and Immigration Policy, 1904-1921 is probably the most comprehensive look at Peter Bryce available today, and I was lucky enough to find it on my first search.  I clearly remember the winter evening I spent reading the thesis, and waking up a few nights later to refer to it, because something in the thesis had infiltrated my dreams.  I am thrilled to be interviewing him.

“As much as he’s being scientific about it, he’s being very human and saying ‘forget about all of the myths and urban legends, here’s what the hard evidence tells me,’” says Green. “’The evidence tells me that Aboriginals are not by their nature unsanitary, and new immigrants from the steppes of Russia are not unsanitary.’  So while he’s delivering cold hard facts, he’s also flying in the face of what the commonsense knowledge was of new immigrant populations and of Aboriginals and it would be the reverse of what almost every Canadian thinks at the time.”

As we pack up at Adam’s house I remember my parents’ lessons about integrity: “Don’t follow the crowd. Do the right thing.  Stand up for yourself.”  I chat with Adam and help move equipment before driving to our next interview. It is a pretty normal scenario, one I’ve played out dozens of times.  But on the inside I feel different; I feel like now I am more complete.  Now I know where those lessons came from.

 

The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed.  If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return.  Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer.   If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at andyj.bryce@gmail.com