Peter Bryce and the Golden Whistle Award

 

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“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
– Albert Einstein

It’s a wonder anyone blows the whistle on wrongdoing; whistleblowers never fare well in the aftermath.  Take the case of Alan Cutler, for instance.  He was a senior procurement manager at the Ministry of Public Works and Government Services Canada in the mid-1990s when he noticed irregularities in the spending of federal government funds in Quebec.  We now know these irregularities as Adscam, or the Sponsorship Scandal.  Auditor-general Sheila Fraser found about $100 million in fees and commissions was paid to communications agencies in what now looks like a program which was basically designed to generate commissions for these companies.

And Alan Cutler?  In a 2012 article written by journalist Michael Harris, Cutler reveals how he was being watched for insubordination after he blew the whistle.  “For three months, they let me rot. Every working day, nothing to do and no one would take my calls. I spent the mornings writing numerals on a pad — 800, 801, 802 … and then crossed them out in the afternoon. I was literally crossing out time. I played out chess openings in my mind. They wanted to nail me for insubordination, so I remained silent. They were watching everything so I didn’t even read a book. They were listening to everything so I never made a personal call. I went home with blazing headaches and ended up on stress medication.”

Cutler was relatively “lucky” (if you can call it that) – many whistleblowers face worse financial, professional and personal losses.  Eventually he moved on to another ministry, and was exonerated by the Gomery Commission.  On the other hand, Cutler’s boss, Chuck Guite spent 3 and a half years in prison and the scandal helped bring down the federal Liberal government in 2006.

5th Annual National Golden Whistle Award

Peter Bryce and Alan Cutler are both recipients of the Golden Whistle Award, presented by Canadians for Accountability and Peace Order and Good Government.  Peter Bryce first blew the whistle on health conditions in residential schools in 1907.  That’s when he reported that 24% of all children in Indian Residential Schools on the prairies were dying of tuberculosis.  He submitted his report to the head of Indian Affairs, Frank Pedley in June 1907.  Pedley and his assistant, the infamous Duncan Campbell Scott, did nothing with it while Bryce issued the report to all MPs and church leaders.  Eventually it was leaked to the Ottawa Citizen which published the details six months later in November 1907.

That’s when the report’s recommendations were called into question and a campaign to undermine my great-grandfather’s credibility was started by Scott. Eventually, when he took over Pedley’s job in 1913, Duncan Campbell Scott told Peter Bryce that the department no longer needed a public health officer, and there was no need to continue issuing reports which showed how poorly the department was handling the public health of Indigenous people.

Bryce took another shot at it in 1922, after he had retired from the civil service and was no longer bound by confidentiality agreements.  In his short book The Story of a National Crime, Bryce recounted his time at Indian Affairs, and blamed the inaction on health issues on Duncan Campbell Scott.  Bryce also outlined how he had been treated by the federal government.  From the beginning of his tenure in 1904, Bryce had advocated for a ministry of public health.  Eventually in 1919 the government called on him to draft legislation for just such a ministry, but it denied Bryce the honour of being the first deputy minister in 1920.  Instead, the government retired him in 1921 and put him on a pension worth about ¼ of his annual salary.

The Indian Residential School program devastated the Indigenous community in Canada for well over one hundred years.  As well, the effects of the system will linger for many years to come, even though the last residential school was closed in 1996.  Just like all whistleblowers, Peter Bryce paid for his revelations financially, professionally and personally.  But we as a society owe Peter Bryce, Alan Cutler and all whistleblowers a debt of gratitude, for as American president Dwight D. Eisenhower said “a people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

 

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 ghost of Duncan Campbell Scott haunts the halls of INAC

I couldn’t help thinking of Duncan Campbell Scott when I read Doug Cuthand’s article this weekend.  Cuthand is a member of the Little Pine First Nation and a columnist for both the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Regina Leader-Post.  Before making his living as filmmaker and writer, Doug Cuthand spent fifteen years with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.  He is well-qualified to write about Indigenous issues.

In a column published November 5 called Replace hidebound INAC with a 21st century ministry, Cuthand takes a critical look at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and calls on the government to replace it with something more modern, and less redolent of the colonial era of Canada’s development.

“It also has a long history of meddling in First Nations affairs and providing substandard services,” says Cuthand. “The department has been a law unto itself for generations.”

Well, definitely since 1913 when the department came under the control of Canada’s mandarin/poet Duncan Campbell Scott.  This was a man who joined the department in 1879 (when family friend Sir John A. MacDonald recommended him) and left in 1932 – a 53 year career in one department.  No one person left a greater stamp on Indian Affairs than Duncan Campbell Scott.

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Duncan Campbell Scott

It was Scott who advocated for the assimilation of Indigenous people, and increased residential school attendance from 11 thousand in 1913 to 17 thousand students in 1932.  He did this by forcing students to go to residential schools, all the while knowing of the health problems at those schools, and failing to get enough money to adequately pay for their care, feeding and education.  Scott was the most parsimonious of bureaucrats, ultimately valuing dollars over lives.   This could well have been due to his belief that Indigenous people would disappear because of their perceived “inferior qualities.”  In 1920 he explained in parliament

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…

Of course there was one voice that said these people could stand on their own, given half a chance.  That voice belonged to my great-grandfather, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce and he had the evidence to back up his statement.  One of the first things Bryce did when he was hired in Indian Affairs in 1904 was study the evidence to see if the myth that Indigenous people were spiritually, emotionally and physically inferior was true.  Bryce’s minister, Sir Clifford Sifton had said just that in a committee meeting in 1900, so it was a career-limiting moment when Bryce reported that there was no indication of physical inferiority in Indigenous people.  What he did find instead was that European people who lived in the same conditions as Indigenous people had similar rates of disease and mortality. This was not news that the penny-pinching Duncan Campbell Scott would have welcomed, so instead Scott did his best to discredit my great-grandfather.

“It was Duncan Campbell Scott who received Peter Bryce’s report (on conditions in residential schools) and moved to suppress that report and discredit your great-grandfather,” says Cindy Blackstock.  When Duncan Campbell Scott became deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1913, he relieved Peter H. Bryce from his duties as Chief Medical Officer, and discontinued the practice of issuing an annual report on the health of Indigenous people.

The First Nations case against the Federal government at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal proved that the federal government spends less on social services for Indigenous children than on non-Indigenous children.  I also note that INAC lapsed (meaning “didn’t spend”) 900 million dollars last year.  These two facts alone make me think Mr. Cuthand has a good point – it seems not much has changed since the colonial days of Duncan Campbell Scott and Peter H. Bryce.

 

 

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.