Why Peter Bryce’s legacy still matters today

The legacy of Peter Bryce was embodied this year by John O’Connor, the first recipient of the award named after Canada’s most famous whistleblower.

“All I’m doing is my job,” O’Connor said at the award ceremony. “Part of being a physician is being an advocate for your patients, and that’s all I do.”

In 2006, John O’Connor documented high levels of cancer in Fort Chipewyan communities on the Athabasca River, downstream from the Alberta oil sands. O’Connor, who was working there as a family physician, drew a connection between the high rate of rare cancers and the pollution coming from oil and gas extraction nearby. Studies in 2007 and 2009 confirmed his concerns.

But the Alberta provincial government responded to the data by saying O’Connor had “insufficient evidence.” His regulating college accused him of “raising undue alarm” about the oil sands. Ultimately, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons closed its investigation into O’Connor and cleared him of wrongdoing, but damage had already been done. O’Connor was then abruptly fired in 2015.

In March, O’Connor, who continues to work as a physician in northern Alberta, was awarded the Peter Bryce Prize from Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression. He is the first recipient of the award honouring Canadian whistleblowers who put their livelihoods on the line to tell the truth.

At the ceremony, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam noted that O’Connor’s advocacy brought global attention to the health issues with the oil sands. “The struggle will always be there,” Chief Adam told O’Connor, “but if it wasn’t for you, the world would never know.”

Those words could have been said of Peter Bryce, one of the first Canadian government physicians to blow the whistle on systemic health risks impacting Indigenous people. In 1907, Bryce was the chief medical officer of Canada’s Department of the Interior and part of his job was to inspect Indian residential schools. His report was devastating, documenting that at least one in four Indigenous children attending residential schools had died from tuberculosis. He wrote: “Of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon, nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and … everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

The report cited poor ventilation and horrific neglect from school officials. Bryce wrote that in various regions, “local medical officers urged great action” by the Canadian government for years – but the government did not act. Bryce also documented broader health inequities, noting that health-care funding granted to citizens in the city of Ottawa was about three times higher than what was allocated to First Nations people in the entire country.

Bryce backchanneled the report to Ottawa’s Evening Citizen, which ran a front-page feature, headlined: “Schools Aid White Plague, Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians, Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health.”

The government ignored Bryce’s recommendations and professionally retaliated against him. The Department of Indian Affairs canceled Bryce’s annual medical reports on TB in residential schools in 1913, slashed his research funding and attempted to stop him from presenting at academic conferences. When the person who replaced him (Col. E.L. Stone) sought to curb rates of TB in residential schools, his departmental funding was also cut – by 20 per cent.

Bryce responded by writing a small book, The Story of a National Crime. It is one of the few documents about residential schools written by a government official that provides health data clearly detailing the government’s culpability.

I asked Travis Hay, a historian of Canadian federal Indigenous policy about the impact of Bryce’s book. “Bryce made sure that future historians would be able to use the government’s own records to prove its ‘national crime,’” he said. “This is an important contribution given the extent to which Canadians have not believed or have not listened to Indigenous survivors of this genocide.”

Through placing his career and reputation on the line to tell the truth, Bryce showed “the moral conviction and courage it requires to enact the Hippocratic Oath and to transition reconciliation from an ideology to a reality,” wrote Hay, together with Cindy Blackstock and Michael Kirlew in a March 2020 CMAJ article. The three authors seek to keep Bryce’s memory alive in part because of what it can teach us about Canadian government responses to health-care crises in Indigenous communities.

“If the Government of Canada had listened to Dr. Bryce,” Blackstock told me, “and if an outraged public pushed the government to act when headlines about Dr. Bryce’s reports appeared in newspapers across the country, thousands of children’s lives could have been saved.”

The last of Canada’s Indian residential schools closed in 1996, after more than a century of operation. Since 2020, nearly 1,400 children’s bodies have been recovered on the grounds of five former Indian residential schools. There will likely be thousands more found as investigations continue at 17 former sites.

More than a century after Bryce’s report, Indigenous people continue to face health inequities, including denial of emergency care, forced sterilization and other abuse in the medical system. Communities across Canada struggle with the health effects of pollution from Canadian government-sanctioned natural resources extraction and a lack of clean water and basic health necessities. It took 60 years for the residents of Grassy Narrows in Ontario to receive health care to deal with the effects of mercury poisoning from industrial waste, which has impacted 90 per cent of residents.

Too often, federal and provincial governments have spent decades issuing denials – and reprisals against those who blow the whistle – or simply ignoring audits, reports and even court orders. As Blackstock notes, “The government had racked up 20 non-compliance and procedural orders over the past five years,” for refusing to act in various areas affecting Indigenous health.

Bryce could have stayed in a comfortable position as a government official, ignoring what he witnessed in the residential schools. Instead, he left archival fingerprints that help us trace the roots of health injustices which continue today.

Although Canada’s residential schools may now be abandoned, demolished or turned into monuments, we can only begin the process of reconciliation when we break down the structural racism that remains.

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Anne Borden King

Deputy editor

Anne Borden King is a print journalist and the host of Noncompliant: A Neurodiversity Podcast

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