Dear Dr. Bryce: Letters to late residential school whistleblower express gratitude, pledge action

Ottawa

As Canada prepares to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, some are quietly paying their respects to a man who more than a century ago tried to sound the alarm about the appalling health conditions in residential schools.

A mailbox has been placed at the Ottawa grave of Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief health inspector who more than a century ago tried to warn his superiors at the Department of Indian Affairs about the conditions at residential schools. Visitors to the cemetery have been leaving letters of appreciation.(Alexander Behne/CBC)

For someone who died nearly 90 years ago, Dr. Peter Bryce sure gets a lot of mail.

Bryce was the chief health inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs who, in the early 20th century, tried to alert the nation to the atrocious conditions in residential schools — where abuse, malnutrition and especially tuberculosis were taking a deadly toll on the children forced to attend the institutions.

His warnings were largely ignored, and he was branded a troublemaker and pushed into retirement from the public service. In 1922, Bryce published his own pamphlet about the schools titled . He died a decade later.

"One of Dr. Bryce's greatest laments is that … the work of saving these children's lives did not get done in his lifetime. He died feeling like he was a failure," Cindy Blackstock told CBC's on Monday.

Blackstock, a professor at Montreal's McGill University and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, has been working toward righting that historical wrong. She was the driving force behind a garden of orange flowers, windmills and other ornaments that has sprouted up around Bryce's gravestone in a quiet corner of Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery.

Bryce's warnings went unheeded, and he was eventually pushed out of the public service. He later published his own pamphlet about what he had discovered in Canada's residential schools.(Peter Campbell)

'Thank you for speaking up'

Over the summer, Blackstock noticed visitors to Bryce's grave were leaving letters, poems and drawings for him, so she erected a simple orange mailbox to keep them out of the rain.

Now, Beechwood staff check the mailbox regularly and remove the contents for safekeeping. According to the cemetery's Nick McCarthy, the letters are eventually handed over to the Bryce family.

One of the letters left at Bryce's gravesite in Beechwood Cemetery.(Submitted by Nick McCarthy)

McCarthy confirmed that Bryce's mailbox is a first for Beechwood, which was founded in 1873.

"Dear Dr. Bryce," one of the letters begins. "Thank you for speaking up about what was happening in residential schools. Thank you for risking ridicule and going against the grain. I'm sorry no one listened. We are listening now."

"My heart breaks whenever I think of the trauma, fear and terror experienced by the children torn from their families," wrote another. "Others have taken up your fight."

"You exposed the imposters who were running the residential schools, yet the government would not listen," wrote the Davidson family. "At long last, Canadians hear your plea and we will honour your wishes to give Indigenous People justice and we will stand with them as they regain their culture."

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, stands near Bryce's grave earlier this summer. 'He died feeling like he was a failure,' she said.(Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Inspired to learn the truth

One correspondent, who signed their letter simply as "an appreciative Canadian citizen," wrote to Bryce that they recently enrolled in a course to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous people.

"It is abundantly obvious that the history I was taught of Canada was incomplete, with stories such as yours remaining untold," the person wrote.

"The distress you must have suffered as your call for change went unheeded is unimaginable to me. Thank you for your courage and care. I appreciate knowing of your efforts to address the plight of the children forced into this system. I will not forget your story and your contributions."

A letter addressed to Bryce in the mailbox beside his grave.(Alexander Behne/CBC)

Yet despite the earnest pledges contained in the letters to Bryce, Blackstock fears Canadians as a whole have already lost interest in the ongoing struggle for reconciliation.

"We've now had 5,000 children found in unmarked graves since June, but it's barely a ripple in the Canadian media now," she said. "Now is the time to not look away, and make sure the government of Canada remedies the injustices that are still going on."

Blackstock said members of the Bryce family will take part in a special tour of the cemetery on Thursday to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

She said an important step along that journey toward reconciliation is continuing to recognize the contributions of people like Bryce, who refused to stay silent despite the personal cost.

"It's far more convenient to say, 'Oh, people back then didn't know any better,'" Blackstock said. "To be able to keep that myth going, they erased these people who were in fact raising these concerns."

Bryce's gravesite at Beechwood Cemetery is adorned with orange flowers, windmills and other ornaments. Blackstock was the driving force behind the garden.(Alexander Behne/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

After spending more than a decade covering Ottawa city hall for CBC, Alistair Steele is now a feature writer and digital copy editor at cbc.ca/ottawa.

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