Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce: The Doctor Who Sounded the Alarm about Residential Schools

Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern

Right now, here in Canada, residential schools have caught the mainstream media’s attention. And with good reason. The discovery of close to 1000 unmarked graves, most of whom are thought to be Indigenous schoolchildren, is shocking and devastating (Dickson and Watson; Eneas). But isn’t our shock a little bit misplaced? As a society, we have known the truth about residential schools for some time. Already in 1907, the Canadian government was provided with ample evidence that the situation was dire. This evidence came from Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior. Well, how did the Canadian government react? Not only did they ignore his warning, but they went out of their way to see that he went unheard… 

Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce
Image Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

In 1907, Dr. Bryce showed that residential schoolchildren were dying at a rate of 24% or more, across Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (Bryce 3-4). He had no doubts about the cause: widespread tuberculosis (Bryce 3-5). Even before the children entered residential schools, many of them were exposed to this disease, shortening their life expectancy (Bryce 11; Hay et al.). Shockingly, death rates in Indigenous communities were sometimes eight times as high as those in the predominantly non-Indigenous cities (Bryce 11). Hence, although the white population grew at a steady rate of 1.5%, the Indigenous population decreased (Bryce 9). Why? Bryce’s report was unequivocal: the conditions in most Indigenous communities were rooted in governmental neglect. Not only were they impoverished, facilitating the disease’s spread, but they received less than one-third of some cities’ medical budget (Bryce 11; 13). This money was also distributed across hundreds of individual communities, essentially diluting its effect (Bryce 13). 

Still, Dr. Bryce had hope, for he believed that solutions were possible. Tuberculosis was not a new disease, but one the government had dealt with before. Some Canadian cities had managed to prevent its rampant, lethal spread (Bryce 11). Notably, Hamilton had curbed its tuberculosis death rate by 75% (Bryce 11). As such, Dr. Bryce knew that there was nothing intrinsic about Indigenous children’s predicament. If conditions were different, outcomes would be, too. And the Canadian government had everything it needed – medical know-how, resources, and money – to make those conditions improve (Bryce 7). 

Not only that, but Dr. Bryce argued that the government had a duty to improve these conditions. Legally speaking, the state served as a kind of guardian for residential schoolchildren; having been removed from their own parents’ care, they were the government’s wards (Hay et al.). Thus, Dr. Bryce felt that the government had a responsibility to “assist and protect” these children (12; 14). By doing nothing to ensure their health, by standing by as Indigenous children died in droves, the government was failing legally as well as morally (Bryce 14). It was guilty of criminal negligence. Dr. Bryce feared that it was only a matter of time before the public got a whiff of this, leading to possibly terrible consequences (Bryce 6). Having no desire to be associated with this scandal, he was concerned for his own reputation, too (Bryce 6). I think it’s important to realize that Dr. Bryce became an advocate for Indigenous children for his own sake as well as theirs. However, he ultimately sacrificed a lot. All things considered, I think I would call him a hero.   

Before we turn to the government’s response to Dr. Bryce’s campaign, I’d like to back-track another 20 years. Already in 1890, there was another doctor sounding the alarm. Like Dr. Bryce, Dr. Orton was concerned about rampant tuberculosis in residential schools. Moreover, he knew that solutions were possible: tuberculosis could be diminished by 50% (Joseph 118). However, despite this promising number, the Department of Indian Affairs dismissed Orton’s ideas. His recommendations were deemed, quite simply, “too costly” (Joseph 118). 

Dr. Bryce was met with similar resistance. He was not just overlooked, but actively “silenced” (Tennant). This was largely due to one man: Duncan Campbell Scott. As Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Mr. Scott oversaw the residential school system (Tennant). Thus, he was quite aware that “barely half of the children in our Indian schools survive to take advantage of the education” (Tennant; Joseph 119). To him, this was a problem, because this education was designed to “get rid of the Indian problem” (Tennant; Joseph 119). Assimilation was the name of the game: Indigenous children were to be inculcated in white Canadian culture and forbidden from practicing their own (Tennant). Still, actions speak louder than words, and, despite this vague concern for residential schoolchildren’s survival, Mr. Scott did nothing to prevent them from dying. In fact, he went out of his way to prevent Dr. Bryce’s ideas from being disseminated, both orally and in writing (Bryce 5; 7-8). In 1919, he abolished the Medical Inspector position (Joseph 120). Apparently, “reasons of economy” weighed heavier than young children’s lives (Joseph 120). When Dr. Bryce insisted on continuing his work, Mr. Scott had to shut him up. He had no desire to be held accountable for the consequences of his priorities. Thus, after dealing with years of obstacles, Dr. Bryce was forcibly retired in 1921 (Bryce 16). In the end, our hero concluded that it was “hopeless to expect any improvement” for Indigenous children’s health (12). 

In sum, the Canadian government was aware that Indigenous children were dying in their schools. They knew the cause: tuberculosis; and they had expert doctors advising them on how to act. However, act, they did not. In 1920, soon-to-be Prime Minister Arthur Meighen dismissed an attempt by the Department of Health to combat tuberculosis in Indigenous communities (Bryce 13). Echoing Indian Affairs’ “too costly” in 1890, he said this measure would not “be practicable” (Bryce 13). Yes, the residential schools were responsible for cultural genocide, but to speak only of cultural genocide risks missing the point. The Canadian government destroyed not only Indigenous culture, but also many, many lives. Children who might have lived long under other circumstances, died at astounding rates. But the Canadian government refused to act.

Works Cited

Bryce, Peter Henderson. The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. James Hope & Sons, 1922. Scholars Portal Books, https://books-scholarsportal-info.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/uri/ebooks/ebooks5/ia5/ebooks/oca3/21/storyofnationalc00brycuoft

Dickson, Courtney and Bridgette Watson. “Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says.” CBC News: British Columbia, May 27, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-emlúps-te-secwépemc-215-children-former-kamloops-indian-residential-school-1.6043778

Eneas, Bryan. “Sask. First Nation announces discovery of 751 unmarked graves near former residential school”. CBC News: Saskatchewan, June 24, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/cowessess-marieval-indian-residential-school-news-1.6078375

Hay, Travis, et al. “Dr. Peter Bryce (1853–1932): whistleblower on residential schools”. CMAJ, March 02, 2020, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.190862

Joseph, Bob. 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Indigenous Relations Press, 2018. Tennant, Zoe. “Pushed out and silenced: How one doctor was punished for speaking out about residential schools.” CBC: Unreserved, 17 Apr. 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/exploring-the-past-finding-connections-in-little-known-indigenous-history-1.5531914/pushed-out-and-silenced-how-one-doctor-was-punished-for-speaking-out-about-residential-schools-1.5534953

About the Author:

Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.

Published by livesforliteracy

A non-profit organization on a mission to ensure that youth everywhere have the opportunity to acquire literacy skills that help them reach their full potential academically and economically.

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