Finding Dr. Bryce – research exposes important medical report from 100 years ago.

June 24, 2015
Virginia McKendry

Growing up in Ontario, Andy Bryce knew little about the work of his great-grandfather Dr. Peter Bryce.  “My father never really talked about him,” says Andy Bryce.  “I didn’t know about his role in uncovering health abuses in residential schools until just a few years ago.”

That was in the fall of 2011, when he inherited a box full of his mother’s genealogical materials. “I quickly found out that he had done ground-breaking research which had almost been forgotten until just a few years ago when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used his reports to determine just how much the federal government knew about conditions in those schools, and how early they knew it,” says Bryce. 

As Medical Inspector to the Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs, Bryce’s great-grandfather conducted a three year survey of residential schools in the prairie provinces, and visited 30 schools in 1907. “He discovered the average death rate for Aboriginal children in a residential school was 24% - about one in four students was dying, mostly from tuberculosis,” says Bryce, adding that one school had an astounding death rate of almost 70%.

Peter Bryce’s report recommended changes to the buildings and to the way incoming students were handled when it was discovered they had tuberculosis. “The government instituted a couple of his recommendations, half-heartedly, but it seems it was largely ignored,” says Bryce. He says while the report was a confidential document sent to church leaders and members of the government – its existence is known because it was leaked to the press six months after it was written.

Just as he was uncovering this information, Bryce entered the MA in Professional Communication program at Royal Roads.  Bryce, a digital communication instructor at Camosun College in Victoria and associate faculty member at Royal Roads, wanted to write a thesis that involved the coverage of a news event in media. He said it was a natural choice to focus on the ways media covered his great-grandfather’s revealing report. Bryce used his findings, along with findings of how media have covered Indigenous issues in news since then to create a roadmap for developing better coverage of Indigenous people and issues. 

“I interviewed a series of journalists and newsmakers who work in the arena of Indigenous affairs to come up with ways to combat problems like the misleading framing of Indigenous people and agenda-setting practices which keep Indigenous issues out of the news,” says Bryce. “It all begins with education and by asking questions which get past the old media narratives which have become so familiar.”        

Bryce presented his findings to the 2015 annual conference of the Broadcast Educators’ Association of Canada in Vancouver.  “These teachers have a strong influence over a large number of students who will go on to be journalists and producers, so I was really reaching an influential audience,” he says.

Since finishing his degree last summer, he has also taken his research and used it as the basis for the production of a documentary.  “I recognized immediately that Peter Bryce’s life story is a compelling one.  Every time I talked to someone, they would say ‘you should do a doc on that,’ so last fall I partnered with Peter Campbell of Gumboot Productions and started the process of producing a documentary.”

School of Communication and Culture professor Dr. Virginia McKendry supervised Bryce’s thesis, and recalls early discussions about format. “Andy already had the journalism experience and skills needed to produce a documentary,” says McKendry. “His thesis work deepened his research skills and knowledge of his great-grandfather’s legacy, allowing him to produce a well-researched documentary about the man, his motivations and contributions to Canada.”

Now partnered with the Canadian Public Health Association, Bryce and Campbell already have some of the key scenes completed and are currently fund-raising in order to continue principal shooting in August. “It’s a busy time, but by the fall we should have most of our shooting done – we hope to have it ready by June 2016.”

Bryce hopes the film will show that his great-grandfather was far more than the man who, over 100 years ago, documented health abuses at residential schools.  “He wrote model legislation in public health that was adopted across Canada and the United States, he impacted immigration patterns, and he advocated government intervention in health issues decades before Medicare,” says Bryce. “He was years ahead of his time.”


For more information on the documentary and Bryce’s research, go to: