This past fall, I was involved in the musical-historical project Four Horses that tells the story of a dark chapter in Canadian history. Working with University of Regina Press (publishers of Clearing the Plains) we set out to introduce a new generation to the story of how the federal government used disease and famine in an attempt to destroy First Nation identity in Canada. Until I was involved in this project, I would have thought that such accusations couldn’t be true in a country such as ours. The Four Horses project forced me to look closer, and the closer I looked, the starker the picture became.
So let’s look at the residential schools and the legacy of two men: one famous and one obscure. The famous man is Duncan Campbell Scott -- the architect of the 20th century’s brutal residential school regime. The obscure figure is a crusading bureaucrat named Peter Henderson Bryce.
Bryce was the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Indian Affairs at the turn of the 20th century. In 1907 he released an explosive report On the Indian Schools Of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories that exposed the atrocious death rates of tuberculosis among children in the residential school system.
He laid the blame on both the Churches and the Federal government. To Bryce, it wasn’t simply a case of negligent local school officials but a systemic failure of the federal government to ensure adequately funded education and health support for Aboriginal children. He pointed out that a number of institutions didn’t even bother to provide soap or clean water for the children.
Bryce insisted that all Indian Affairs officials under his watch begin tracking the monthly rates of illness in First Nation communities. This compilation of statistics showed that students were dying at rates between 24 and 69%.
In the larger Aboriginal population, Bryce found that tuberculosis was killing an estimated 34.7 per 1,000, compared to the non-Native rate of approximately 1.8 per 1,000 people. On the prairies the death rate was closer to 90 per 1000.
Medical authorities knew the importance of public health initiatives to fight the spread of TB but federal officials did little to stop the devastation in First nation populations. Bryce pointed out that the Department of Indian Affairs was spending a mere $10 annually on TB prevention to cover off three hundred First Nation bands. By comparison, the City of Ottawa was spending $342,000 annually on programs to stop the disease.
Bryce pushed the federal government to establish proper hospitals and hire nurses who could slow the spread of the illness. He pushed to have the Churches removed from Indian education and put forth recommendations to ensure to an overhaul of federal education responsibilities with adequate financial support.
Such recommendations did not please Indian Affairs head Duncan Campbell Scott. He was in a long line of department bureaucrats who saw their role as saving the federal government money by ignoring Treaty obligations. In a five-year period, the First Nation population dropped a staggering 17% with TB accounting for the majority of deaths. To Department bureaucrats higher deaths meant fewer expenses for the Department.
Writer Cathy Sproule Jones points out that the department officials viewed the death rates on the prairies as “an opportunity to reduce expenditure on services like education and medical attention. Between 1891 and 1896 alone, the native population in Canada dropped from 120,638 to 100,027."
Bryce, who was a believer in the Social Gospel was appalled at this attitude. In a letter to Archdeacon Tims who ran an Aboriginal industrial school in Calgary Bryce wrote:
"How in the world you can be satisfied with statistics which show that out from 900 to 1,000 children which pass through our Indian schools 300 of them pass out of our hands to the grave within ten or twelve years? I cannot conceive except upon the hypothesis that we grow callous amidst such a frightful death rate?"
Duncan Scott had enough of the reforming efforts of Bryce. In 1913, he suspended funding for Bryce’s research work stating that the cost of gathering statistics on child deaths from far outweighed the "benefit" of the information provided.
To Scott, the role of the residential schools was to brutally simple: “get rid of the Indian problem... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”
Scott not only rejected the majority of Bryce’s reforms but signed into law an order that forced every First Nation child to be removed from their parents and put in the church run schools. Children were forcibly removed from their home communities and put into a system that the Department knew was fundamentally unsafe for children. Scott and his officials knew the death rates and the incompetency of the Churches for providing for basic health, safety and education. But rather than take action to protect the children, Scott set out to erase the evidence. He ended the position of Chief Medical inspector for the schools.
Scott went on to be celebrated for his years of "public service" while Bryce quit the federal service in disgust. Nonetheless, with his professional career in tatters, Bryce called out both Duncan Scott and the Federal government in an article entitled "The Story of a National Crime." He accused them of "criminal disregard" of their Treaty obligations.
So what is there to learn from these two men? Ninety years on, the Department of Indian Affairs continues to act as a bureaucratic impediment to basic improvements in education, health and social improvement. There is nothing accidental about this dysfunction. It is the result of decades of deliberate policy choices -- the same choices that promoted Duncan Campell Scott while suppressing the work of Peter Henderson Bryce.
Ninety years on, we have the job of undoing these wrong choices. It is time that we put our nation back on the right road with our treaty partners. So, it may seem like a century too late but thank you Peter Bryce for your dedication and public service.
Bryce, Peter Henderson. The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada. James Hope and Sons. 1922.
Sproule-Jones, Megan. Dr. Peter Bryce, Public Health and Prairie Residential Schools . Canadian Bulletin of Medical History .Volume 13, 1996
Daschuk, James. Clearing the Plains. University of Regina Press. 2013.