Pushed out and silenced: How one doctor was punished for speaking out about residential schools

Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce isn't exactly a household name in Canada, but child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock wants to change that. She explains how he spoke out about the treatment of children at Indian Residential Schools back in 1907.
Cindy Blackstock is working to restore the legacy of Dr. Peter Bryce, who sounded the alarm on residential schools over 100 years ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press/Peter Campbell)

Cindy Blackstock was searching for allies in the history books. She was hoping to find someone who spoke out about residential schools, about the high death rate of students, the maltreatment of Indigenous children, and the inequalities. 

While reading A National Crime by historian John Milloy, Blackstock came across the work of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce. That's when she thought to herself, "That's the example. There's the person who was of that time, who knew better, who stood up for these kids and did everything in his power to make sure that they wouldn't die." 

Bryce spoke out about the treatment of children at Indian Residential Schools back in 1907, but he was silenced by the Canadian government. 

Blackstock, who is the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, has been working to restore his legacy. 

Who was Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce? 

Bryce was a non-Indigenous doctor who was a leader in the medical field. He was a founding member of the Canadian Public Health Association, he served as president of the American Public Health Association, and he drafted the first provincial public health act in Canada, Public Health Act of 1884.

In 1904, at the age of 51, Bryce was recruited by the government of Canada to be the chief medical health officer of what was then known as the Department of Indian Affairs.

"The first task they give him is to send him out to study the health of the children in residential schools," explained Blackstock. 

The government was already receiving reports at that time that up to 50 per cent of children were dying in residential schools, said Blackstock. Statistics showed that students in residential schools were dying at rates between 24 to 69 per cent. Bryce was sent to study what was happening. 

In 1907, Bryce submitted a report critical of the health conditions in residential schools. He blamed the federal government for negligence that led to the high death rates.

"He really believed that once he proved the problem, and gave them a solution, the government of Canada would do the right thing. How could anyone allow these kids to die?" Blackstock said. 

"But Canada refused."

The Story of a National Crime

Bryce's recommendations were dismissed by Duncan Campbell Scott, then head of Indian Affairs. Scott was the man who oversaw the Indian Residential School system, the man who stated that his goal was to "get rid of the Indian problem." Scott eventually terminated Bryce's funding for research.

The Canadian government, explained Blackstock, "tried to disparage" Bryce. 

"They stopped him from presenting at academic conferences because they didn't want this news to get out, and eventually they pushed him out of the public service. But even then, he wasn't silent," said Blackstock. 

In 1922, Bryce wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. In his book, Bryce outlined the government's role in establishing and maintaining conditions that led to the high number of student deaths in residential schools, and the government's deliberate decision to not take action. The number of residential schools continued to increase in the following years. 

Bryce distributed The Story of a National Crime "all over Ottawa," explained Blackstock, "to try and get people's attention." 

Restoring History

Bryce is buried in Ottawa, in Beechwood Cemetery. It's the same cemetery where Duncan Campbell Scott is buried.

Dr. Peter Bryce is buried in Ottawa, in Beechwood Cemetery. It’s the same cemetery where Duncan Campbell Scott is buried. (Submitted by Cindy Blackstock)

Until five years ago, there was a plaque at the cemetery that commemorated Scott and referred to him as "one of the outstanding figures in Canadian poetry." In addition to Scott's 52-year career in the Department of Indian Affairs, he was also a poet. 

Blackstock worried about residential school survivors, and others, who might come to the cemetery to visit Bryce's grave and who would have to walk by the plaque celebrating the achievements of Scott. So, she went to talk to the staff at the cemetery to see what could be done about it. 

"I'd actually thought, well, they're going to resist this," she recalled.

"I said, 'You know, a lot of residential school survivors may be coming to see Bryce. And I don't want them to walk by this plaque of Duncan Campbell Scott that's inaccurate," Blackstock explained. 

The cemetery staff replied to Blackstock by saying "'What can we do?'" 

A few days later Scott's plaque was removed. 

Blackstock worked with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair, historian John Milloy, and others, to come up with balanced wording for Scott's plaque. The revised text includes both "cultural genocide" and "Confederate poet." 

"It feels like a balanced telling of history," said Blackstock. 

'Courage is not a value. It's an activator of values.'

Blackstock is now the caretaker for Bryce's grave. She's planted a garden at the site and she keeps in touch with his family. 

"I think what [Bryce] really shows us is that courage is not a value. It's an activator of values," said Blackstock. 

In August 2015, a historical plaque was erected at Beechwood Cemetery to celebrate Bryce's work and legacy. 

"He had the moral courage to stand up for others, knowing that he might take a personal hit." 

"We all have a duty to our fellow human beings, to the land, the animals and to future generations to be morally courageous — to make sure that when we know better, we do better."