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Canada ignored early alarmist who called out residential school issues

Camosun digital communication instructor Andy Bryce examines a photograph of his great grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryce, one of the first senior officials to raise the alarm about health abuses in Canada’s residential school system.  - Ivan Watson photo
Camosun digital communication instructor Andy Bryce examines a photograph of his great grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryce, one of the first senior officials to raise the alarm about health abuses in Canada’s residential school system.
— image credit: Ivan Watson photo

It was an inherited box of genealogical files that first notified Saanich resident and Camosun College instructor Andy Bryce about the work of his great grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryce.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission review was three years into its research when Andy discovered the box in 2011, following his mom’s passing. He was fascinated to discover that his ancestor, Dr. Bryce, was one of the few senior Canadian officials at the time to take a courageous stand against the abuses suffered by Aboriginal children at the church-run and government-sanctioned residential schools.

“A light just went off for me,” he said.

In five years since his discovery, Andy has dedicated much research to the subject, and is in production of a short film documentary about Dr. Bryce’s story for middle school students across Canada.

“Growing up, I didn’t know much about him,” Andy said. “After sorting through the box, I looked him up on the Canadian Encyclopedia, and the first thing mentioned was his role in 1907 revealing health abuses in residential schools”

In 1907, Dr. Bryce, then Chief Medical Officer in the federal Indian Affairs department, reported that one in four children in Western Canadian residential schools died from tuberculosis over a three-year period. At one school, the rate was as high as seven in 10.

After bringing attention to the appalling rates of neglect and suffering, Dr. Bryce was shuffled to another department and the Chief Medical Officer position was eliminated. But he never gave up. After he retired in 1921, Dr. Bryce criticized the government’s inaction in a book, titling it: The Story of a National Crime. Despite stirring a national scandal, the government did nothing at the time.

Sitting in his office at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus, great grandson Andy is visibly proud of Peter’s courage.

“One of the things that struck me was how tenacious he was about this particular issue and how long he stuck with it. It obviously got under his skin,” Andy said.

At the time, the research fit perfectly as the starting point for Andy’s thesis as he was studying a master’s of professional communication at Royal Roads University.

“My great grandfather’s story was the cornerstone for my research,” he said.

Andy attended a family reunion in Ontario, where he met many of Dr. Bryce’s descendants for the first time.

Following that, he contacted Peter Campbell, a filmmaker he knew with 30 years of experience working on social justice issues. Using Andy’s research, they partnered to produce a documentary film on Dr. Bryce’s legacy.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

In March 2015, the University of Toronto opened a school of Indigenous public health, named in part after Dr. Bryce.

“We went to film that ceremony, which was really touching and exciting,“ Andy said.

The documentary attracted the attention of Charlene Bearhead at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, who proposed that Bryce and Campbell produce a 20-minute version of their documentary for middle school students across Canada. Andy anticipates the short film will be ready later this spring,. The full length documentary is still in progress.

“[My great grandfather] was a pioneer in that idea that government should be proactive in the way that we approach medical care. I think his most important legacy is to contradict the idea of laissez-faire government, and to say that government should be involved in the way that society is run, to ensure social justice.”

Bryce aims to finish the longer documentary in time to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2017.

For more information visit facebook.com/PeterHBryce.

 

editor@saanichnews.com

 

 

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