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Was Peter Bryce, the One Dead White Man Who Bucked the Demonization Trend, a Saint or a Sinner?

Many of Canada’s important historical figures have seen their statutes toppled and their names erased from buildings and maps in recent years in an outburst of historical cleansing. Among the victims: Sir John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, and Samuel de Champlain, all former heroes and nation builders.

Whatever good these dead white men did in creating modern Canada has been ignored. Any act or statement contrary to contemporary Canadian values is see as warranting their public condemnation and erasure. The litmus test for doing so is any association, however remote or tangential, with Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

But there is one dead white man from the last century whose reputation has risen as fast as others have fallen. The stature of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, a senior public health official at the turn of the 20th century and previously a minor character in Canada’s historical record, is rising triumphantly.

Bryce today is widely feted as a “hero” for his efforts to improve residential schools. In 1907, as chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, he investigated the dismal health conditions at these schools in Western Canada and issued an official report that received considerable public and political attention. Later, he tangled over further reforms with Duncan Campbell Scott, the imperious bureaucrat who ran Indian Affairs for several decades. Bryce was eventually sidelined in this struggle.

After retiring, however, he self-published the pamphlet “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada” in 1922, an attempt to bring renewed attention to the matter. For this, Bryce is now celebrated as an early “whistleblower.” It is a renaissance primarily driven by scholars and activists based on the narrative in Bryce’s pamphlet.

On Sept. 30, the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a federal public holiday, Bryce was honoured with the unveiling of a plaque on Sparks Street near Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

According to activists in a recent CBC article about Bryce titled, “Doctor who blew the whistle on atrocities of residential schools honoured in Ottawa”: “The federal government of the day stonewalled him by cutting his research funding, barring him from speaking at medical conferences and eventually pushing him out of his job.”

However, whistleblowers often have complicated, overlapping, and sometimes self-serving motives. And when the whistleblower, as in Dr. Bryce’s case, was silent for many years and only published his pamphlet after he was passed over for a senior government position, the reader needs to take note.

Bryce, far from being a whistleblower, was specifically tasked by Indian Affairs with investigating health issues in residential schools and with making recommendations to address them.

And rather than “stonewalling” him, the federal government acted with alacrity. His report was distributed for comment to all members of Parliament, to the churches operating the residential schools, and to the principals of the schools.

The matter was debated in Parliament and the newspapers, and within three years the government had significantly increased school funding and implemented three of his more significant proposed reforms.

These included specific air space provisions per student (air space and sunlight were widely believed at the time to be important in reducing the spread of tuberculosis infection, the leading cause of student deaths), more rigorous screening of students on school entry (including a medical exam), and compulsory calisthenics for all students.

Despite what historical revisionists claim today, Bryce scored a policy hat trick: his three key proposals were implemented, and the Indian Affairs budget was increased by 60 percent.

Two years later, in 1909, at the request of Indian Affairs, Bryce and a colleague examined 243 indigenous children in the Calgary area and found that TB was present in children of all ages. Crucially, no child awaiting admission to an indigenous school was found to be free from TB, leading to the conclusion that “the primary source of infection is in the home” and that “the tuberculized older person in the home is the essential source of the infection.”

A later study conducted in 1920 using the first reliable TB test showed that even among infants (native or European), the primary killer, on- and off-reserve, was TB, confirming again that the disease was primarily acquired in the home and not in residential schools, contrary to the current narrative.

Bryce, as part of his duties, also analyzed medical returns from every reserve and noted that, while some reserves had TB rates significantly worse than that prevailing among the general Canadian population, some reserves had TB rates that were significantly lower. He concluded that the TB rate in schools could hardly be expected to be better than the TB rates on the reserves from which the students came. Again, this contradicts what is now said about the schools.

It is impossible to reconcile the modern narrative advanced by activists with the actual historical record. The “facts” were not ignored by the government, but acted on with great dispatch.

The same contradiction between historical facts and their contemporary rewriting holds for Bryce’s recommendations (ignored in the modern narrative) that the government should enforce compulsory attendance in indigenous schools and that most indigenous students should attend residential schools rather than day schools.

Bryce’s recommendations were at odds with the government’s longstanding policy (in place from the 1870s) which assumed that, over several generations, the value of education would become self-evident to indigenous communities without the need for compulsory measures.

And Bryce’s recommendations were made at a time when the majority of indigenous students attended day schools (there were 248 day schools and only 74 residential schools) and when, far from being compulsory, more than half of all students at day or boarding schools dropped out after Grade 1.

Bryce was very much a man of his time in other ways, too. In his work for Indian Affairs, he often recommended the “admixture of white blood” (inter-marriage) and the integration of indigenous Canadians into white society as a solution to native health problems—ideas that would be met with incredulity if formally announced as policies today. And yet rates of intermarriage are often used today by sociologists as a measure of the success of a racial, linguistic, or religious group within a larger society.

So why have Bryce’s advocates chosen to celebrate his accomplishments in sharp contrast to how nearly every other significant character from Canada’s past has been treated in recent years? It is a singular puzzle. Perhaps Bryce’s disparate treatment is meant to offer white Canadians expiation through a single righteous figure. Or maybe it is intended to counter criticism that the popular approach to Canadian history is unrelentingly negative.

By all means, Canadians should reflect on the complex and occasionally inspiring story of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce and assign credit where due to his achievements and good intentions. But we should do likewise for the rest of Canada’s now-darkened pantheon of historical figures—some of whom, including our first prime minister, are far less compromised than Bryce.

Sir John A. Macdonald was instrumental in ensuring that indigenous people were vaccinated against smallpox, a disease for which they had no natural immunity, provided massive emergency food relief when the Buffalo population collapsed, and avoided the Indian Wars that plagued the American experience (Canada had none). Altogether, these actions saved tens of thousands of indigenous lives.

Canadians must learn to appreciate their past as it happened, regardless of whether that proves narratively or politically convenient.

By Greg Piasetzki and Hymie Rubenstein 

This is an abridged version published in the Epoch Times of an earlier story by Greg Piasetzki that first appeared in the C2C Journal under the title “Everybody’s Favourite Dead White Male: The Mysterious Resurrection and Celebration of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce”. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

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