Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce
Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce – An early Canadian whistleblower who in 1907, spoke up about appalling public health conditions in residential schools.
This award recognizes Dr. Bryce’s outstanding courage, dedication and integrity and honours others who have come after him to speak up for the public good, regardless of the personal cost.
Peter Henderson Bryce was born in Mount Pleasant, Ontario on August 17, 1853 to a prominent Presbyterian family in Upper Canada (now Ontario). After graduating from Upper Canada College, he earned his BA, MA and MB (Bachelor of Medicine) at the University of Toronto, and then taught briefly at the Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph. He left Canada in 1880 to further his medical education and studied neurology at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, becoming a fellow of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians and a member of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain. He returned to Guelph in 1881 and opened a general medical practice, earning his MD in 1886.
In 1882, Bryce became the first secretary of the newly formed Provincial Board of Health for Ontario and played a key role in the drafting of Ontario’s 1884 Public Health Act. In 1887, he became the Board of Health’s Chief Officer and, in this role, began his life’s work applying his knowledge of preventive medicine to advocate for the advances that better hygiene could have on public health. He also proposed improvements to water and food supplies, public sanitation and sewage management. True to his European training, he also began collecting detailed statistics about public health, driving fact-based decision making, policy and practices[i]. He was an active member of the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis and in 1900, became the first Canadian president of the American Public Health Association.
In 1904, Bryce was appointed the Medical Inspector to the then “Department of the Interior and of Indian Affairs” and began a “systematic collection of health statistics of the several hundred Indian bands scattered over Canada.” [ii] He also began work studying the health conditions of the Canadian residential school system and in 1907 was instructed by the Minister to “conduct a study of thirty-five Indian schools in the three prairie provinces”.[iii]
In 1907, he submitted his “Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories” which outlined the horrific impact of poor sanitation and health practices in the residential schools and contained detailed statistics on the appalling mortality rates which underlined these claims, mostly from tuberculosis. His research indicated an average mortality rate of between 14% and 24% at the schools. The situation was worse on the reserves where the infant mortality rate was a shocking 42%, apparently caused by sick children being sent home to die. At one residential school, Bryce found that 69 per cent of all alumni had died, almost all of them from tuberculosis.[iv]
Concluding that these deaths resulted from the poor conditions and lack of sanitation within the schools, Bryce’s report made it clear that the federal government was directly responsible for these conditions, stating that, “of a total of 1537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.” [v]
For a man of his background and education to take this stance against his employer the federal government was most unusual and is an indication of just how deeply Bryce had been impacted by what he had seen. Like many whistleblowers, he was actively and conscientiously doing the job he had been given, but sadly the response to his report also bore all the hallmarks of modern whistleblower retaliation stories.
The Department of Indian Affairs did not publish Bryce’s report, however it was leaked to the media, prompting calls for reform from across the country. Despite this public outcry, the residential schools remained open. Bryce’s recommendations were largely ignored, and Indigenous children continued to die of tuberculosis and other diseases at alarming rates. A second study in 1909 with another doctor of the children of eight residential schools in Alberta, again at the instructions of the minister, detailed similar results and Bryce subsequently stated that “owing to the active opposition of Mr. D. C. Scott, and his advice to the then Deputy Minister no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made”.[vi]
Although the government pointedly refused to act on his findings, it is clear that his initial, 1907 report was distributed to Members of Parliament and to church groups, receiving some public attention. On November 15, 1907, The Evening Citizen ran a front-page story with the headline “Schools Aid White Plague — Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians — Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health.” [vii] Similar stories also appeared in the Saturday Night magazine and the Montreal Star newspaper but although the issue came to the attention of people across Canada, those in positions of power ensured that Bryce’s findings did not lead to any concrete change. The government continued to ignore Indigenous mortality rates and systemic public health failures.
Despite the lack of support, Bryce continued to pursue his agenda of equality in healthcare for the Indigenous population and called for “a major overhaul in the system of residential schooling”.[viii] He noted that the health care funding granted per capita to citizens in Ottawa alone was about three times higher than that allocated to all Indigenous people in Canada. Between his appointment in 1904 and for each year up to 1914 he wrote an annual report on the health of the Indigenous population which was published in the Departmental report of the Department of the Interior and of Indian Affairs. He also continued to publish annual reports on the situation in residential schools. Increasingly Bryce became the target of what is now known as whistleblower retaliation and was the subject of a coordinated attack on his work, his reputation and his ability to address the issues impacting Indigenous health and welfare.
Bryce’s funding for research was cut and his attempt to present his findings at the annual meeting of the National Tuberculosis Association in 1910 was thwarted by Scott who, at the time, was the president of the NTA. In 1913, Duncan Campbell Scott became the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, and in 1914 he wrote to Bryce declining to make the necessary departmental records available to him and declining his offer to write the report for publication.[ix]
Once again, Bryce refused to give up, even when in 1917, he was transferred to the Civil Service Commission. In this post he used his knowledge in an attempt to show how important the Indigenous peoples of Canada were to the country’s war efforts, both in terms of the troops recruited and their capabilities in agricultural production. Although his attempts to improve health conditions among the 300 or so Indigenous bands failed, he continued to push for change.[x]
In 1918, Bryce developed a memorandum and a proposed bill for introduction into Parliament for a new Federal Department of Health, which contained, amongst its provisions. the inclusion of an Indian Medical Service along with the other medical services. Once again, Bryce was thwarted in his efforts, when the clause creating the Indian Medical Service was removed before the second reading of the bill.
Bryce continued with his quest, but it is clear that the forces arrayed against him were too powerful and in 1921 he was forced to retire from public service because of his age, despite the fact that others of a similar age and older were being appointed to key positions. He appealed his forced retirement and was denied, and clearly felt the sting of seeing another appointed to the position of Minister of Health which he had aspired to and indeed had helped to create.[xi] At the same time, he saw much of his earlier work come to nothing, the existing structures dedicated to the health of the Indigenous population were dismantled and the new Minister of Health said in parliament that his department could not take on responsibility for that issue stating that “The Health Department has no power to take over the matter of the health of the Indians. That is not included in the Act establishing the department. It was purposely left out of the Act.”[xii]
In 1922, now outside the government, and no longer bound by his oath of office as a Civil Servant, Bryce published a pamphlet entitled “The Story of a National Crime.” [xiii] The pamphlet detailed his findings relating to the ravages of tuberculosis on the Indigenous population, and his recommendations for transforming the health and sanitation of this population. It also laid out many of the details of his struggles to do something about these issues in the face of determined and effective opposition, led by Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott is remembered for his consistent support of and involvement in the forced assimilation of Canada's Indigenous peoples and is seen as one of the architects of what Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as cultural genocide. In 2015, the text of the plaque at his gravesite was amended to reflect this.[xiv]
Bryce died on January 15, 1932 while travelling to the West Indies having recently buried his son Henderson Bryce, also a doctor, and who was sadly taken by tuberculosis.
Peter Henderson Bryce stands as a true example of the dedication, honesty, raw courage and determination that is sometimes required of those who speak up in the public interest. Like many Canadian whistleblowers after him, he refused to give up in pursuit of what he knew to be true, that the basic needs of Indigenous peoples of Canada were being systematically disregarded allowing preventable diseases to decimate their population. His work on behalf of those he sought to help is now widely recognized by Indigenous groups across the country and his grave in Ottawa has become a shrine to those who speak up for the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Dr. Peter Bryce (1853–1932): whistleblower on residential schools. Travis Hay, Cindy Blackstock and Michael Kirlew. CMAJ March 02, 2020 192 (9) E223-E224; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.190862
Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, for the fiscal year ended 30th June,1906" (http://govinfocollections.library.utoronto.ca/islandora/object/govinfo1%...). University of Toronto - Government Information
Collections - Sessional Papers, 1901-1925. Department of Indian Affairs. 1906. pp. 272–284. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
Toronto United Church Council – “Finding Peter Bryce” https://www.tucc.ca/finding-peter-bryce/ Retrieved January 4, 2021.
[i] The duty of the public in dealing with tuberculosis" (https://archive.org/details/cihm_55427) (Microform). 27 October 1898. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
[ii] The story of a national crime: being an appeal for justice to the Indians of Canada; the wards of the nation, our allies in the Revolutionary War, our brothers-in-arms in the Great War". P. H. BRYCE, M.A., M.D. https://archive.org/details/storyofnationalc00brycuoft). Internet Archive. Ottawa: J. Hope. 1922. Retrieved 28 December 2020.
[vii] The Evening Citizen – 1907 article “Schools Aid White Plague – Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians – Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health”
[xii] Ibid and Hansard June 8th, 1920, Page 3275 regarding the estimates of the Indian Department then under consideration in Parliament.
[xiv] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/duncan-campbell-scott-plaque-updated-1.3299062. Retrieved January 4, 2021.