Ivan Watson / Black Press
It was an inherited box of genealogical files that first notified Camosun College instructor Andy Bryce about the work of his great grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryce.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission review was three years into its research when Andy discovered the box in 2011, following his mom’s passing. He was fascinated to discover that his ancestor, Dr. Bryce, was one of the few senior Canadian officials at the time to take a courageous stand against the abuses suffered by aboriginal children at the church-run and government-sanctioned residential schools.
“A light just went off for me,” he said. In five years since his discovery, Andy has dedicated much research to the subject, and is in production of a short film documentary about Dr. Bryce’s story for middle school students across Canada.
“Growing up I didn’t know much about him,” Andy said. “After sorting through the box, I looked him up on the Canadian Encyclopedia, and the first thing mentioned was his role revealing health abuses in residential schools. In 1907, Dr. Bryce, then chief medical officer in the federal Indian Affairs department, reported that one in four children in Western Canadian residential schools died from tuberculosis over a three-year period. At one school, the rate was as high as seven in 10.
After bringing attention to the appalling rates of neglect and suffering, Dr. Bryce was shuffled to another department and his previous position was eliminated.
But he never gave up. After he retired in 1921, Dr. Bryce criticized the government’s inaction in a book, The Story of a National Crime. Despite stirring a national scandal, the government did nothing at the time.
Sitting in his office at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus, great grandson Andy is visibly proud of Dr. Bryce’s courage.
“One of the things that struck me was how tenacious he was about this particular issue and how long he stuck with it. It obviously got under his skin,” Andy said.
At the time, the research fit perfectly as the starting point for Andy’s thesis as he was studying a master’s of professional communication at Royal Roads University.
“My great grandfather’s story was the cornerstone for my research,” he said. Andy attended a family reunion in Ontario, where he met many of Dr. Bryce’s descendants for the first time. Following that he contacted Peter Campbell, a filmmaker he knew with 30 years of experience working on social justice issues. Using Andy’s research, they partnered to produce a documentary film.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
In March 2015, the University of Toronto opened a school of indigenous public health, named in part after Dr. Bryce.
The documentary attracted the attention of Charlene Bearhead at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, who proposed that Andy and Campbell produce a 20-minute version of their documentary for middle school students across Canada. Andy anticipates the short film will be ready later this spring. The full-length documentary is still in progress.
“I think his most important legacy is to contradict the idea of laissez-faire government, and to say that government should be involved in the way that society is run, to ensure social justice.”
Bryce aims to finish the longer documentary in time to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2017. For more information visit facebook.com/PeterHBryce.