1899 portrait of Dr. Bryce by Lancefields of Ottawa. Image courtesy of the Bryce Family.

2022 marks 100 years since the  publication of The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal of Justice to the Indians of Canada, written by Dr. Peter Bryce. Bryce based this significant report on an unreleased survey he had conducted several years earlier of 35 residential schools at the request of the Department of Indian Affairs. At the time, Bryce had served as Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Indian Affairs. Previously he’d been an official of the Ontario Health Department and made a reputation for himself as a pioneer of public health and sanitation policy in Canada.

Dr. Bryce submitted his original report in 1907, Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. It detailed the poor health conditions at residential schools in the Prairie provinces. By this point, Dr. Bryce had already submitted recommendations that hospitals be set up on or near reserves to combat the alarmingly high rate of death due to tuberculosis (TB). Indigenous peoples were dying of TB at a rate almost 20 times higher than that of non-Indigenous persons. Dr. Bryce also pushed for better sanitation in residential schools.

Dr. Bryce’s 1907 report highlighted the staggering death rates at the schools. At one institution, the File Hills Colony residential school in Saskatchewan, the physician found that 69% of students who had attended the school had died either while there or shortly after — almost all from tuberculosis. He concluded that these deaths resulted from the poor conditions and lack of sanitation within the schools. His report made it clear that the federal government was directly responsible for the appalling living conditions.

The Department of Indian Affairs did not publish Dr. Bryce’s 1907 report but it was leaked to journalists, prompting calls for reform from across the country. Despite the public outcry, the residential schools were not closed and Dr. Bryce’s recommendations were largely ignored.

Deputy Superintendant of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott moved swiftly in the aftermath of the 1907 report and suspended funding for Dr. Bryce’s research, stating that the cost of gathering statistics on child deaths from TB far outweighed any benefits the information provided. The Minister additionally interfered with Dr. Bryce’s presentations at academic conferences and, rather than receiving an expected promotion, Minister Scott determined that Dr. Bryce should be retired from the department.

Outraged at the government’s inaction on the issue of Indigenous health and that he had been pushed out of the department, Dr. Bryce published a subsequent report in 1922, The Story of a National Crime. Although he was not the only doctor to protest conditions at residential schools, this was the first report distributed to the public at large on the disease and death rates at residential schools. Dr. Bryce argued that Scott and the Ministry of Indian Affairs neglected Indigenous health needs and noted a “criminal disregard for the treaty pledges.”

Front cover of Dr. Peter H. Bryce’s pamphlet The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, published in 1922. Image courtesy of the Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre.

Nearly 100 years later, amidst a global pandemic, public health officials play a prominent role in our daily lives. Those in the public healthcare sector have always worked on the frontlines and, quite literally, among the citizenry. Yet despite a job that requires daily interaction with restaurant owners, folks living in parks and shelters, operators of our sewage and water systems, and all manner of other occupations, we rarely acknowledge the importance of what public healthcare workers do for us. The public health sector is the first and last line of defense against widespread contagious illnesses that can fell hundreds and even thousands of people in a short period of time.

As of 2020, we no longer take the public health department for granted. On the contrary, many of us are now familiar with the Chief Medical Officers of the city, region, and province where we live. More than a century ago, Dr. Bryce enacted policies to prevent the spread of disease. Those policies included stricter government control of public water and food supplies, as well as the proper disposal of sewage.

Since Dr. Bryce’s time, the rate of active tuberculosis in Canada has plummeted and is among the lowest in the world. Nevertheless, TB still exists. Today, the rate of active tuberculosis in Canada is 4.9 per 100,000 population. The rate is still highest among Canadian-born Indigenous peoples (21.5 per 100,000 population).

The last residential school closed relatively recently, in 1996. In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and, less than a decade later, issued its final report, which concluded with 94 Calls to Action. The Calls included promoting public dialogue and public initiatives for reconciliation (#53); the creation of age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools for Kindergarten to Grade 12 (#62); providing teaching material on the history and legacy of residential schools in the public school system in addition to building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect (#63).

Our story on Dr. Bryce and his report is a step towards a meaningful response to the recommendations put forward in the Truth and Reconciliation Report. Sadly, too many of the 94 Calls remain unanswered. Canada has yet to reconcile with its past crimes.

The commemoration of Dr. Bryce and his work will increase awareness and improve students’ understanding of the impact and ramifications of the Canadian Indigenous Reserve and Residential School systems. Our exploration of Dr. Bryce’s report allows audiences to delve into themes and subject matter that are either new or unfamiliar including:

  • Colonialism, the Indian Act, and the Ministry of Indian Affairs in 1900
  • The Canadian Indigenous Reserve and Residential School systems
  • The evolution of Public Health in Canada
  • Impact stories of the ‘Fatal Five’ diseases in Canada (diarrhea, consumption, bronchitis, scarlet fever, and whooping cough)
  • The Two-Eyed Seeing Approach
  • Healing & Medicines

It is important that these subjects are approached with the utmost respect, responsibility, and consideration. Consulting with Indigenous heritage groups and Indigenous support centres is a priority because our objective is to tell the story of Dr. Bryce’s research through the voices of the Indigenous peoples he fought for.

Read our submission to the Globe & Mail.

Written by Dr. Crystal Fraser (University of Alberta), Dr. Tricia Logan (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre), and Mr. Neil Orford (DMC President).

Statements of Support

The histories of Dr. P.H. Bryce, the Story of A National Crime (1922) and affiliated histories of the officials, teachers, doctors and clergy members that documented the crimes of the residential school system while they were in operation are so important to our understandings of how the school system operated. Histories of residential schools in Canada are complex and in many ways are still emerging. Defining Moments Canada as well as the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC are both dedicated to contributing to new narratives in Canadian history and supporting new pedagogical approaches to how these histories are taught, in Canada.

Tricia Logan, Ph. D
Assistant Director, Research and Engagement
Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

This commemorative project hearkens meaningfully to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action calling for the creation of educational curriculum and learning resources on residential schools (Calls to Action 62 and 63). Bryce’s advocacy offers profound insight into the devastating intent and impact of the residential school system. His 1907 report and The Story of A National Crime (1922) found that roughly one-quarter of all Aboriginal children attending residential schools died of tuberculosis. […] The Bryce Report@100 will support people in Canada in the understanding affirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the residential school system strove to eliminate Aboriginal peoples and that further effort is required to end its enduring harms.

Cindy Blackstock, OC, FRSC, Ph.D
Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and publisher of over 75 articles on Reconciliation, Indigenous theory, First Nations child welfare, and human rights.