Two and a Half Decades with Peter Bryce: An Outsider’s Journey into Truth and Reconciliation

By: Dr. Adam J. Green

Dr. Adam J. Green

Contributing Historian

Dr. Adam J. Green is a trained historian specializing in Canadian identities, research methodology, and comparative histories. He earned a doctorate in History and Canadian Studies from the University of Ottawa and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University, along with degrees in Developmental Psychology and Evaluation. Adam’s academic journey has included teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Ottawa and Bishop’s University, and positions as an Adjunct Professor and a Research Fellow at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Adam has been published on a range of topics, including Aboriginal history, Canadian- American relations, the digital humanities, and the history of Canadian identities. His Master’s thesis explored the life and work of Dr. Peter Bryce, and he has engaged in a range of scholarly, journalistic, and public activities centred on Dr. Bryce in the two decades since. Once a full-time academic, Adam currently works as a Director of Policy Development and Stakeholder Engagement in the federal public service. He lives in Ottawa, where he also takes part in a range of volunteer activities in his local community, notably in the service of furthering children’s education.

One cold winter day in 1998, I walked into Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street in Ottawa[i], and requested a box of documents related to the career of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce. The diligent archivist processing my request came back and said no one had ever requested Bryce’s holdings. For privacy reasons, the archivist continued, I had to prove he was no longer alive before they could unseal the records. Slightly taken aback, I produced an obituary, drawing attention to the birth date of 1853.[ii] In hindsight, the exchange was not surprising: at the time, Bryce was hardly a household name. 

Twenty-four years later, the difference could not be starker: Bryce now has awards named after him, appears in children’s educational books, and is the subject of radio shows, documentaries, and government funded projects. His name appears on two historical plaques in Ottawa, one just recently unveiled on Sparks Street in the heart of the city. 

My journey with Bryce began as a graduate student at Queen’s University in Kingston in the late 1990s. Under the tutelage of two incredible Canadian historians—Dr. Bryan Palmer and Dr. Ian McKay—I was introduced to the fields of Canadian labour history and the burgeoning study of ‘state formation’. While researching the former, I came across one Dr. Peter Bryce, who had written a series of articles on the medical basis (or lack thereof) of contemporary theories around the “desirability” and the “absorbability” of a range of non-Canadian ethnic groups.[iii] At the same time, I found extensive commentary by the same person on the role and obligations of the Canadian state and the public service to those under its constitutional care—notably, its Indigenous population, whose members were legally considered to be “wards of the state.” 

I was astonished by the breadth of this single individual’s writing, the philosophy which underpinned it, and the fact that he brought all this knowledge to bear as Canada’s Chief Medical Officer—a position I had never heard of in the Canadian bureaucracy. I found a few articles and references to his work, and then dove in as graduate students do, squirrelling away for months of research and writing, adorning my student workspace with copious pictures of Dr. Bryce and his legendary Victorian moustache. However, aside from turning the most astonishing details into a scholarly article in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies a few years later, I assumed my journey with Bryce had ended with the granting of my diploma. 

In retrospect, it is staggering to realize just how niche this entire area of study was, with just a handful of specialists amongst my contemporaries. Outside of the separate, seminal work completed by John Milloy on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples[iv], few academic researchers delved into this area; indeed, the most likely outcome of those who had Masters’ degrees in history and had even slight exposure to Indigenous history in the early-to-mid 2000s, was to be hired as a historical researcher to backstop the management of claims under Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. 

As many others have acknowledged, prior to the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2015, the overall literacy of the Canadian population was likewise limited: one study found that in the Ontario education system between 2003-2015, only 1.9% of mandatory courses covered material relevant to Indigenous history and culture.[v] General cultural awareness was highly limited as well. An op-ed jointly written in 2013 by former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, and Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, called for Canada to officially recognize the residential school system as genocide. Their argument, based in large measure on Dr. Bryce’s work, was clearly written in a way that assumed the concept would be new to the reader as well as policy-makers. 

It was around that same time that Andy Bryce, Peter Bryce’s great-grandson, contacted me. Andy was at the start of a deeply personal journey to learn more about his great-grandfather, who had left money in his will to cover the education of his yet-to-be-born great-grandchildren (including Andy). In starting work on a documentary about his own efforts to learn about Bryce, Andy had come across my research, which, as of the mid-2010s, was still among the most extensive available. I offered Andy much of the original material I had collected and copied for my dissertation—a ‘hand-off’ which we filmed, along with an interview, in the summer of 2015 as part of the footage for his 2018 film, Finding Peter Bryce

As Andy’s work on his film slowly ramped up over the 2010s, so too did the modest but growing public awareness of Dr. Bryce’s life and legacy. Reporters began contacting me every few months because they had seen or heard of my graduate work and wanted some commentary for a story.[vi] I was thoroughly excited when John Steckley, a formidable Indigenous languages and studies scholar and professor from Humber College, reached out to me proposing a collaboration on the development of some additional pieces on Peter Bryce. Ultimately, John and I compiled the manuscript for a full-length book, which we submitted in 2022 for publication consideration. 

With the above said, when stepping back to take stock of the shifting scholarly—and personal—lens through which all of this work is filtered, I must note with consideration that my vantage point is always influenced, to some extent, by subjective motivations and emotions.[vii] It would be dishonest to say that, despite everything I had read from the pen of Dr. Bryce, I fully absorbed the severity, totality, and inter-generational impact of the residential school system within the timeframe of my original research. That level of awareness and acceptance would take reflection, conversation with actual survivors, and pulling back the full veil through painfully public efforts such as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings. To be sure, the path upon which this work leads can be a hard one to follow, as it inevitably leads outsiders to confront the long shadows cast by too many throughout Canadian history. In making this journey, I found myself, as do many, continuously reaching into my own personal/family history as a means to understand the effects of such darkness, given its unfortunate featuring marginalization, cultural demolition, and extraordinary systemic racism. In my case, it was my grandparents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors, and my own father’s birth in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany well after the end of WWII, which provided an entry point into confronting malevolence and indifference at a societal-level, and the very long shadow such actions cast upon subsequent generations. The 500-year dismantling and destruction of Indigenous peoples’ way of life remains an unfathomably complex web of hubris, ignorance, racism and cruelty, followed by botched solutions which beget yet deeper problems, from the Residential Schools system itself, to the Sixties Scoop, to continuously ignored recommended remedies. Like much of Canadian society, I have had to come to terms with one of the main challenges of our existence as a country, recognizing and accepting this heritage as part of the core of our collective national experiences. Only by acknowledging this history can we also truly accept what it will cost—financially, politically, socially—to address these wrongs.   

Where has all this brought me as a scholar of history? First, it seems evident that Truth and Reconciliation as a process, begins with a requirement that the truth be told and documented. Bryce was voicing the truth of his time and in doing so, he created an official record of wrongdoing that serves as a key part of the documented story of the residential school system. Second, Bryce’s work emerges from two sources: medical knowledge, and a sense of constitutional and public duty. In the case of the former, it is clear that by the medical standards of the day, the residential school system did not employ even basic knowledge about the techniques used to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. It would be nearly impossible to dispute, therefore, that many lives would have been saved if the public health standards used to prevent outbreaks in non-Indigenous populations had been used at the residential schools. But Bryce’s insistence on the government’s duty of care is just as important from a moral and constitutional standpoint, and drives to the heart of the Canadian project. His unshakeable belief in the responsibility of the government and public service towards all peoples living within Canada’s borders was matched only by his outrage towards his superiors’ unwillingness to act on his scientific conclusions. 

Finally, it is undeniable that everyday Canadians—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—now benefit from Bryce’s work, and the story of his professional journey. Bryce has awards named after him, his gravesite in Ottawa is a centrepiece of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation activities in Ottawa, and a plaque was recently installed at the site where his critical 1922 pamphlet was published—all of which speaks the import of his legacy. Bryce was a “whistleblower” before that term had solidified its modern meaning; he used his position, knowledge and training to shine a bright light in dark places at a time when few others did or even thought it was necessary.   

Ultimately, Peter Bryce continues to inspire us because he is an example of how to embody more than one thing when called for—in his case, a medical expert and scientist driven by the facts, as well as a public servant, dedicated to the population that he served—and how to combine the values and merits of each for the broader good. It is this multiplicity of Bryce’s identity and contribution to Canadian life that I will explore in the next article.

[i] At the time, the National Library of Canada and the National Archives of Canada were still two separate institutions, but I have used the contemporary terminology.

[ii] Being somewhat cheekier in those days than I might be now, I actually said “Ma’am, he was born in 1853; if he was alive, you would have heard of him, as he would be the oldest human to have ever lived.”

[iii] For example, “Civic Responsibility and the Increase of Immigrants”, The Empire Club of Canada Addresses, January 31, 1907, and “Social Ethics as Influenced by Immigration.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 1907: 33, pt. 1, and “Insanity in Immigrants,” Journal of Infectious Diseases, 1910.

[iv] Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 5 vols, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1996.  Milloy’s work for the Commission also formed the basis of his critical book – John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986, University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

[v] Jennifer Han, “Secondary Education in Ontario: Effective Strategies for Prejudice Reduction Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Communities,” Sustinere, Volume 1 (2012), no. 1, pp.26-52. Ontario’s curriculum content related to Indigenous history and residential schools was officially changed in 2018, and has gone successive revisions since.

[vi]  Although outside the timeframe under consideration in this section, a great example can be found in “The policy battle that set the stage for a century of residential school death, misery, grief,” Ottawa Citizen, June 12, 2021.

[vii]  A formidable guide on this category of writing comes from Mary Jo Haynes, Jennifer L. Pierce and Barbara Laslett, Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History. Cornell University Press, 2008.