It's the way some people try to explain how past atrocities happened: They didn't know back then what we know now. They didn't realize it was wrong.

That's the thinking often used to rationalize Canada's residential schools, but Cindy Blackstock — head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada — says it's not accurate.

There was someone who knew children were dying in government-run institutions at the time. His name was Dr. Peter Bryce, and he shared that information with authorities. They ignored him.

Blackstock helped push for an exhibit to recognize Bryce's efforts. It launches Saturday at the Ottawa church he attended, St. Andrew's Presbyterian at Kent and Wellington streets.

Just after the turn of the last century, Bryce, then a 51-year-old chief medical officer, was asked by the former Department of Indian Affairs to conduct a health survey of children in residential schools.

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Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, helped push for the exhibit and calls Bryce a 'great Canadian.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Report leaked

"He finds that the death rates in the schools are 25 per cent a year, and if you follow the kids over three years, it's 48 per cent. It's horrifying," Blackstock told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Friday.

In a 1907 report on his findings Bryce pointed out that the City of Ottawa was receiving three times the amount of funding for tuberculosis treatment than all First Nations in Canada, and said he wanted schools to stop putting sick kids in with healthy kids. The measures he recommended were cheap and easy to implement, but nothing was done. 

The report was leaked and appeared on the front page of the newspaper that became the Ottawa Citizen. But still, nothing came of it.

"It puts a red hot poker stick into this myth that people in the period didn't know any better back then. And we really need to lift up people like Dr. Bryce, who spoke up and spoke out to save children's lives at a time that was critical," Blackstock says.

"I think that he is a great example of a great Canadian, someone who had the moral courage to stand up for his values and the lives of innocent children, and to keep speaking up."

Listen to the full interview with Cindy Blackstock here.