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 firstname.lastname@example.org