Dr. Peter Bryce who was non-indigenous prepared a series of annual reports for the federal government in the early part of the 20th century, warning them in one of those reports that the schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories had very high rates of tuberculosis because of overcrowding and poor ventilation. He found that nearly 25% of students in residential schools died there. In some cases even more died. Dr. Bryce knew there was a reason for this, but he did not, as Manitoba Judge Giesbrecht did, use it as an excuse for why so many indigenous children were dying. There was a reason why so many were dying. Dr. Bryce demanded that the government find an “immediate remedy.” But, of course, the government did not act. As Amy Dempsey reported in the Toronto Start and reprinted in the Winnipeg Free Press,
“Bryce felt certain that the public, hearing his account of conditions in residential schools, would demand change from the government. That didn’t happen. The story faded from the headlines and the public consciousness.”
Although the public lost interest, as they so often do unless the story leads to dramatic violence, it did catch the attention of government officials at the federal department of Indian Affairs like the by now infamous Duncan Campbell Scott, who ensured that life for Dr. Bryce became difficult at the department because he was standing in the way of civilizing the natives. As Dempsey said, “Bryce was sidelined for being a whistleblower and ultimately pushed out of public service.” As Dempsey also reported,
“Bryce faced career repercussions for speaking out. The government suspended funding for his research, prevented him from speaking at international conferences, and blocked him from positions within the federal civil service. Forced into retirement in early 1920s, he wrote a tell-all book lamenting that this ‘trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked.’”
Bryce wrote that Duncan Campbell Scott, a high official with Indian Affairs, and others like him, were counting on the ignorance and disinterest of the Canadian public. They were right. Canada did not want to know the truth. And it certainly did not want the truth broadcast. It did what it could to shut him up. Will Canada continue to ignore what it has learned about its history, or will that now change? Time will tell. Each of us can make a difference to how Canada deals with what it has learned.