A moment of reckoning in Canada

Parliament Hill Monday, June 7th, 2021

There are times in our collective story when something really stops people in their tracks. The story of the 215 unmarked graves beside a residential school in Kamloops is one of these instances. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has been out since 2015, it seems to take the pictures of 215 little pairs of shoes on Parliament Hill to bring all this home to us.

We have known about the appalling death count in residential schools since at least 1907. That year, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce produced a report on the state of health in Canada’s residential schools. The conclusions of the report were astounding:

“It suffices for us to know, however, that 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 that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

The Bryce Report, 1907 p.18
One of the tables from the report. What is striking is that many schools did not report at all or said their records were incomplete, records that Archbishop Collins now says are available to all. The Bryce Report p. 18-19

Bryce focused on one particular school where the results were particularly heart wrenching:

Thus, of a total of 31 discharged from the File Hills school, 9 died at the school, of 6 others there is no record of condition on discharge, but all are reported to be dead, 7 others died from within a few months to three years after discharge and 9 are reported as in good health,

The Bryce Report, 1907 p. 18

The reason for this very high death rate was well understood. Scientific medicine had made great strides in the past 40 years and the health effects of good and proper ventilation were well understood. In many of the schools however, there was a criminal inattention to what was needed to keep kids well and protected. Bryce continues:

in the absence of regular and sufficient ventilation, extremely inadequate; that for at least 7 months in the long winter of the west, double sashes are on the windows in order to save fuel and maintain warmth and that for some 10 continuous hours children are confined in dormitories, the air of which, if pure to start with, has within 15 minutes become polluted, so as to be capable of detection by ordinary chemical tests. It is apparent that general ill health from the continued inspiration of an air of increasing foulness is inevitable; but when sometimes consumptive pupils and, very frequently, others with discharging scrofulous glands, are present to add an infective quality to the atmosphere, we have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be.

The Bryce Report p. 19

The report goes on to talk about a general inadequate level of physical activity provided for the students and the absolute disregard for daily health and sanitation in the schools.

Such a report could have been a clarion call for action. These children were the responsibility of the state and it was clearly the state’s responsibility along with the various churches to make amends and vastly improve every aspect of the residential learning environment.

But here is where the story get sinister. Dr. Bryce reported to Duncan Campbell Scott, federal Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs and Scott suppressed the report. It was leaked to the media causing a public outcry, but very little was done to follow through on Bryce’s recommendations that included “the handing over of the school system to the Chief Medical Officer and be made in its first essentials a sanitorium system rather than an educational one: That each child must be primarily considered an “individual case of probably tuberculosis.”
That improvements be made in the buildings so that open air work-rooms and dormitories shall be provided.
That increased expenditure for extra clothing be provided for, also a special dietary. Also improved water
supply for bathing &.” Indian Residential Schools & Reconciliation

In fact, the report was seen as an irritation:

It will be obvious at once that Dr. Boyce’s recommendations while they may be scientific are quite inapplicable

to the system under which these schools are conducted. Even were the Department prepared to take the schools

over from the Churches, it is self evident that the Churches would not be willing to give up their share of the

joint control. These preliminary examinations by Dr. Lafferty and Dr. Bryce have already caused considerable

irritation and brought protests from the Roman Catholic authorities who have the larger number of pupils under

their charge

Department of Indian Affairs File 140,754-1 “Correspondence relating to tuberculous among the Indians in the various agencies across Canada 1908-1910” (c10167)

Daily Colonist November 16, 1907

Scott continued to block Bryce at every turn. In 1913, he denied him the funding he needed to continue his work. Bryce was not allowed to present his findings at conferences. He was denied positions in the Federal Public Service that he was certainly qualified and by 1921 he was forced into retirement (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society). All techniques used by large institutions that have no need for the truth.

But we still don’t seem to get it. Decades after the suppression of The Bryce Report by Duncan Campbell Scott and the Canadian Government, there is still no willingness to call the acts of our churches and governments genocide.

The interview with Rosemary Barton and Cardinal Collins is just a rehashing of past wrongs. Would Scott have said anything really different than the platitudes Collins offered this past Sunday?

Collins is a smooth operator and he brushed aside any thought that there are records that have yet to be disclosed, even as the head of the Oblate order, Rev. Ken Thorson, is in the process of digitizing the records from their Kamloops school (CBC, June 6, 2021).

It is the smug arrogance of church leaders like Collins that will really make the struggle for reconciliation so much harder. No need for apologies, no grand gestures, just a little bit of work here and there.

Full interview with Cardinal Collins

When the mighty fall, they fall hard. Trite statements and interviews by complacent, comfortable men do not help. Yesterday Egerton Ryerson’s statue in Toronto came tumbling down and it has been announced it will not be reinstated.

A photo of the Egerton Ryerson statue at Ryerson University in Toronto after being pulled to the ground. Credit: Global News. Global News

Ryerson was responsible for the early design of the residential school model in Canada. He believed that white and indigenous students should not be taught in the same schools due to their different cultural backgrounds. He was also responsible for developing the separate school system in Ontario – another outmoded idea that might also soon face the chopping block.

As we reexamine our history, who do we still honour? Who do we now comdemn?

All history is relative and the judgement of current times will have to be meted out on people like Scott, MacDonald and Ryerson. These are Canadian icons no more and they must all be toppled from their ridiculous pedestals so we can move on.

One thought on “A moment of reckoning in Canada

  1. Pingback: This Week in Ontario Edublogs – doug — off the record

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