Ancestor’s courageous legacy inspires documentary film
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Inheriting a box of genealogical files after his mother’s death, Saanich resident and Camosun instructor Andy Bryce was fascinated to learn about the work of his great grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryce.
“Growing up I didn’t know much about him,” says Bryce. “After sorting through the box, I looked him up on the Canadian Encyclopedia, and the first thing mentioned was his role in 1907 revealing health abuses in residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was going on then and I was surprised to learn that he knew about all these things decades ago. A light just went off for me.”
Scouring the internet for more information, Bryce was fascinated to discover that his ancestor 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. In 1907, Dr. Bryce, then Chief Medical Officer in the federal Indian Affairs department, reported that 1 in 4 children in residential schools in Western Canada had died from tuberculous over a 3-year period. At one school, the rate was as high as 7 in 10. After bringing attention to appalling rates of neglect and suffering, Dr. Bryce was shuffled to another department and the Chief Medical Officer position was eliminated. But he never gave up. After he retired in 1921, Dr. Bryce published a book critical of the government’s inaction, titling it: The Story of a National Crime. Its publication caused a national scandal, yet still the government did nothing for decades.
Sitting in his office at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus, Andy Bryce is visibly proud of his great grandfather’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,” says Bryce. “I would tell his story to people and they would say: you should write a book, or you should do a documentary on this guy.”
At the time, Bryce had recently enrolled in a Master’s programme in Professional Communication at Royal Roads University. “My great grandfather’s story was the cornerstone for my research, and the starting point for my master’s thesis,” he says.
After attending a family reunion in Ontario, where he met many of Dr. Bryce’s descendants for the first time, he contacted his old friend Peter Campbell, a filmmaker from Gumboot Productions with 30 years of experience working on social justice issues. Using Bryce’s thesis research, they partnered up to produce a documentary film on Dr. Bryce’s legacy.
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. “We went to film that ceremony, which was really touching and exciting,” says Bryce. Not long afterwards, Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa planned to unveil a commemorative plaque at Dr. Bryce’s gravesite, providing another prime opportunity to gather footage.
Bryce’s documentary efforts attracted the attention of Charlene Bearhead at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, who proposed that Bryce and Campbell produce a 20-minute version of their documentary for middle school students across Canada. He anticipates the short film will be ready later this spring, while the full length documentary is still in progress. “There’s lots of interest and we’ve raised $25,000 so far and done a couple of shoots, but there is still a ways to go in fundraising,” says Bryce.
Bryce believes that his great grandfather’s ideas have contemporary resonance. “He was a pioneer in that idea that government should be proactive in the way that we approach medical care. 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. Learn more about the project.
Instructor, Digital Communication
Last updated: March 15, 2016 1:26 pm