Peter Bryce and Duncan Campbell Scott: the road not taken on residential schools
This past fall, I was involved in the musical-historical projectFour 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.