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.
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.”
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.