June 14, 2021

Exposing a National Crime: A Reflection from Defining Moments Canada

Written by Dr. Crystal Fraser, on behalf of Defining Moments Canada

Dr. Fraser is a Gwichyà Gwich’in scholar and consulting Historian with Defining Moments Canada. She is currently an assistant professor in History and Classics and the Faculty of Native Studies at University of Alberta.

Since the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc community announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, we have reflected on the deeply troublesome history of the Canadian settler state. As an organization, the team at Defining Moments Canada has also taken this time to better understand our complicity and perpetuation of ongoing structures of colonialism. We are committed to grappling with and dismantling structures of white supremacy, racism, violence, and inequality of all forms through action. 

Over a century ago, settler Canadian Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, in his capacity as Chief Medical Officer for the federal Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), investigated conditions at 35 Indian Residential Schools in Canada, on behalf of the government. Bryce found that Indigenous children institutionalized at these ‘schools’ suffered from an extremely high death rate, largely due to tuberculosis. Bryce attributed the elevated rates of disease and death to poor ventilation and unsanitary conditions within these institutions, as well as the extreme overcrowding of Indigenous children, largely to meet attendance quotas, so churches could utilize full funding from the federal government. Bryce communicated these atrocities to the DIA, members of parliament, and Christian churches in 1907, in what is commonly referred to as the “Bryce Report.” 

Although the findings detailed in Dr. Bryce’s report received national attention even then, the DIA and church organizations did nothing to improve school conditions and the lives of the thousands of Indigenous children institutionalized in these carceral spaces. Bryce’s findings directly revealed the genocidal disregard of the federal government, but also largely those of Duncan Campbell Scott, DIA deputy superintendent. Scott, along with John A. Macdonald, should be widely acknowledged as architects of genocide via the Indian Residential School system in Canada.

In 1922, after the DIA forced Bryce into retirement, he self-published The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, once again pointing to the horrific conditions at residential schools and the peril of Indigenous children who were institutionalized in them. Again, neither the federal government nor the churches took action to rectify this situation. Over the next 74 years, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were institutionalized, living in harmful conditions. Too many lost their lives due to the negligence of federal politicians and bureaucrats, church administrators and officials, and teachers and supervisors. Many deaths were preventable had they listened to Bryce, now a hero in Canadian history, who first sounded the alarm over a century ago.  

We are grateful and heartened to see the outpouring of support, resources, and solidarity from Canadians, organizations, and governments. We also understand that this is still a time of deep mourning. For Indigenous peoples connected to Kamloops, their loss of family members — children — is tragic, especially since this loss of life was entirely preventable. But we also acknowledge that support is not enough. The need to act is urgent. As similar investigations begin or continue at other Indian Residential School sites, we, as Canadians, will undoubtedly be faced with revelations about other tragedies of a similar nature. This work will be ongoing and difficult, but immensely important. How we respond will mark a defining moment in our country.

First and foremost, we need to support Indigenous communities during their time of mourning, in particular the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc community. You can find resources on how to provide that support here. We encourage all to continue to engage with the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. To date, only 12 of the 94 Calls to Action have been implemented. Calls to Action 71 to 76 are of particular importance here as they outline the necessary work around missing children and graves. Please write to your elected representatives and organization leaders to better understand their efforts and commitments, while expressing your own. Finally, as a historical education organization, we believe the best way to grapple with colonial violence in order to create a fair and equitable Canada where all can flourish is to better understand the past. We call for all post-secondary institutions to fund and support this research. 

If you are suffering, you are not alone. Please reach out to someone in your community. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience: 1-866-925-4419.