What Did Dr. Bryce Really Say?

By Nina Green

In a recent review of Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1922 publication The Story of a National Crime, the CBC claims that the federal government’s failure to implement Bryce’s recommendations constituted genocide:

[The Story of a National Crime] is a scathing report detailing the effects of genocidal policies carried out by the Government of Canada towards First Nations in the first two decades of the 20th century. . . . [Dr Bryce] concludes that the very high incidence of tuberculosis among First Nations in the Prairies was encouraged by the Canadian colonial government as a deliberate policy to destroy indigenous communities. ... Dr Bryce's courageous stand ... gives the lie to Canadian popular myth that residential schools were not (somehow) a tool to enact genocide. The fact that "we didn't know" was deliberate: officials such as Duncan Campbell Scott — poet and genocidaire — feigned sympathy in public, yet continued to carry out policies of deliberate neglect in order, in his words, 'to get rid of the Indian problem'.

What Dr. Bryce actually recommended in The Story of a National Crime

It’s clear that those who claim that the federal government’s failure to implement Dr. Bryce’s recommendations constituted genocide haven’t actually read them.

Although his recommendations are best known from his summary of them in The Story of a National Crime, published in 1922, his original recommendations date from 1907, and resulted from instructions given to him in that year by the Department of Indian Affairs to report on health conditions in 35 Indian industrial and boarding schools in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Bryce’s published report in 1907 (Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories), summarized his findings, but his recommendations were provided separately to the Department of Indian Affairs.

As noted in an article by Greg Piasetski, the original 1907 recommendations are extant, and can be read in a Department of Indian Affairs file available online.

The version Bryce published on page 4 of The Story of a National Crime consists of seven recommendations, only one of which had anything to do with his mandate to report on student health in the schools. As he wrote,


Briefly the recommendations urged: 

(1) Greater school facilities, since only 30 per cent of the children of school age were in attendance;

(2) That boarding schools with farms attached be established near the home reserves of the pupils;

(3) That the government undertake the complete maintenance and control of the schools, since it had promised by treaty to insure such; and further it was recommended that as the Indians grow in wealth and intelligence they should pay at least part of the cost from their own funds;

(4) That the school studies be those of the curricula of the several Provinces in which the schools are situated, since it was assumed that as the bands would soon become enfranchised and become citizens of the Province they would enter into the common life and duties of a Canadian community;

(5) That in view of the historical and sentimental relations between the Indian schools and the Christian churches the report recommended that the Department provide for the management of the schools, through a Board of Trustees, one appointed from each church and approved by the minister of the Department. Such a board would have its secretary in the Department but would hold regular meetings, establish qualifications for teachers, and oversee the appointments as well as the control of the schools;

6) That Continuation schools be arranged for on the school farms and that instruction methods similar to those on the File Hills farm colony be developed;

(7) That the health interests of the pupils be guarded by a proper medical inspection and that the local physicians be encouraged through the provision at each school of fresh air methods in the care and treatment of cases of tuberculosis.


Six of the seven recommendations above (all of which appear in expanded form in the original 1907 version) comprise Dr Bryce’s sweeping vision for the restructuring of the entire Indian education system, and as such were completely outside his mandate to report on health conditions in the schools.


Schoolroom at Coqualeetza.


Few Canadians today would agree with those six recommendations.  In fact most Canadians today would emphatically disagree with them. Because day schools on reserves were already proving to be a failure because of students' ‘very irregular attendance', Dr Bryce recommended the building of more residential schools, particularly boarding schools with farms attached. He urged the federal government to 'undertake financial management and systematic control of all Indian education', and recommended that the Indians should share the costs out of their own funds. He recommended using provincial curricula because he envisioned a future in which all Indians would give up their treaty rights and be enfranchised (i.e., lose Indian status), and reserves would cease to exist as Indians became part of Canadian communities. He recommended the setting up, by Order in Council, of a Board of Trustees to manage the residential schools consisting of an executive officer from the Department of Indian Affairs and a representative from each of the churches, but with no Indian representation. He recommended that ‘everywhere the Boarding School type of agricultural school be developed with an adequate farm attached’, which of necessity would use student labour, and approved of the half-day system under which children received classroom instruction for only half the day and worked the other half day. He considered the File Hills Colony, in which students were granted blocks of land on reserves, to be a model to be emulated in instruction on residential school farms (in contrast, the Canadian government recently apologized for the File Hills Colony, and paid compensation for its existence).  He recommended the appropriation of lands from the churches and the appropriation of lands from the reserves for residential schools, while calling for the closure of schools he deemed unsuccessful, and the transfer of the students to other schools.  Some schools were to have the principal and staff changed in order to turn the school into ‘a successful agricultural boarding school’. He also discussed compulsory attendance, and appeared to favour it.

Dr Bryce's only recommendation involving student health was that ‘fresh air methods’ be used by local doctors at each school to treat TB, which included setting up a tent hospital at the school where students could be treated in isolation from other students, a rather impractical suggestion considering the Canadian winter.

It is only because the media has failed to inform Canadians about what Bryce actually recommended that Canadians have been led to believe that because it did not follow his recommendations, the federal government committed genocide.


What did the federal government actually do to combat TB?

Contrary to what the media has led Canadians to believe, the federal government instituted many practical and beneficial measures to combat TB. They can be found in the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) Annual Reports, and include insistence on sanitation and proper ventilation in residential schools, the hiring of medical personnel to treat residential school students (287 of them were on staff in 1918 according to Dr Bryce himself on page 10 of The Story of a National Crime), and the establishment of Indian TB hospitals.

Once effective medications for the treatment of TB became available in 1944, many residential school children were successfully treated in those TB hospitals, including Chief Bev Sellars, stepmother of former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who in her autobiography mentions her successful treatment for TB at Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in Sardis, and Phyllis Webstad’s aunt, Agness Jack (editor of Behind Closed Doors), who was also successfully treated for TB at Coqualeetza (see Behind The Orange Shirt Story, p. 55).


According to Dr. Bryce, TB originated on the reserves, and was spread from the reserves to the residential schools

Not only has the mainstream media failed to inform the public about the active measures taken by the federal government to combat TB, it has also consistently failed to explain to Canadians why TB in the residential schools was such a problem, and what Bryce had to say about the source of infection in the schools.

The fact is that throughout his tenure as Chief Medical Officer, Bryce specifically stated that the unsanitary health habits of the Indians on the reserves were the direct cause of the spread of TB, and that TB infection was spread from the reserves to the residential schools.

In 1906 Dr Bryce wrote that entire families were infected by dried sputum on filthy floors and walls in cramped homes on the reserves, and that infection spread from there to the schools:

5. That the prevalence of tuberculosis amongst the bands is not due to insufficient food, though doubtless poorly preserved and badly cooked food may tend to lessen individual resistance; but it is due directly to infection introduced by one member of a family into a small, often crowded, house, and there, as dried sputum collects on filthy floors and walls, is spread from one to another so certainly and at times so rapidly that one consumptive has in a single winter infected all the members of a household as certainly and rapidly as if he had had small-pox.

6. That from such houses infected children have been received into schools, notably the boarding and industrial schools, and in the school-room, but especially in the dormitories, frequently over-crowded and ill-ventilated, have been the agents of direct infection.

7. That children infected in the schools have been sent home when too ill to remain at school, or because of being a danger to the other scholars, and have conveyed the disease to houses previously free.

8. That owing to the simple habits of the Indian, common to all people at their stage, visiting from house to house is a chief feature of the day’s occupation, and the sick are visited or go avisiting, and through their expectorations serve to steadily spread the infection.


As noted above, in 1907 Dr. Bryce was instructed by the Department of Indian Affairs to report on health conditions in residential schools in the prairie provinces, and although his findings were published, Bryce claimed his recommendations to the Department of Indian Affairs (which were not contained in the printed version) were suppressed.



As Greg Piasetski has written, Dr. Bryce’s printed report was given widespread coverage:

As a memo found by the author in the national archives (see page 28) reveals, copies of Bryce’s report were delivered to all Members of Parliament and Senators, as well as senior representatives of all churches involved in operation of native schools and, further, to the principal of every Indian boarding school in the country, with a request for comments.


The distribution of Dr. Bryce’s printed report created a furore because it purportedly revealed a very high rate of death from TB among residential school students.

In fact, the data Bryce had compiled were seriously flawed. He left a set of questions at each school he visited. However by the time he compiled his published 1907 report, he had received answers from only 15 of the schools, and because his questions were imprecise, the results he received were confusing and difficult to tabulate accurately, which led to substantive errors.

For example, in a letter dated 16 November 1907, the principal of the Sarcee Boarding School, J.W. Innis, corrected Bryce’s erroneous claims concerning ventilation in the school. He also corrected Bryce’s figures on student deaths at the school, writing that there had been only a single student death since 1900, not ‘a number of deaths’:

The last two items are however, the most serious blunder. ‘One' is stated as being Tuberculized and died after being sent home in 1906-7 and “a number died in 1905-6 of T.B.”  This is altogether false.  One pupil was sent home & died of Tuberculosis in 1904 and this is the only case of death from that cause since the year 1900. There was not a single death as stated in 1905-6.  The boy who died in 1905 had the disease when he entered - was only admitted by Dr Lafferty as a probationer in the hope that care & feeding might help him, but it didn’t & he was sent home again.

The principal of the Calgary Industrial School, George H. Hogbin, also questioned Dr Bryce’s compilation of results, pointing out that although Bryce had implied that ventilation was inadequate (‘No special means of ventilation but windows’), in fact ’The whole house is cut up with extra large windows, factory size, and our western winds blow in enough to raise the hair’.  In addition, there were Tobin’s ventilators near the ceilings, and air shafts in connection with the chimneys.   Moreover although Bryce had reported one death at the school in 1906-7, the principal did not know of it, stating that there had been only one death at the school since it began, and that death had not occurred in 1906-7.

Given the errors in his analysis of data from these two schools alone, it seems almost certain that Bryce’s data for the returns from the other schools in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are equally suspect, and that the furor his report gave rise to in the media and in Parliament at the time, and has given rise to since that date, lacked a factual foundation.

In his annual report in 1909, Bryce turned his attention to adult Indians, and to the fact that they would not remain in Indian TB hospitals, but returned to the reserves before they were well, where they infected others.  He suggested to the Department of Indian Affairs that it should give Indian Agents the power to compel adult Indians to remain in the TB hospitals against their wills:

It is apparent that the principles laid down in the above report are such as are fitted for adoption in many places; but in so far as the Indian reserves are concerned, they supply only what in war is called 'first aid to the wounded.' They need to be followed up by much more positive work, if we are to obtain satisfactory results in dealing with so chronic yet fatal a disease as consumption is amongst Indians. In the tuberculosis hospital on the Stony reserve under the care of a most efficient staff, it is found after two years that the chief difficulty is to keep patients at the hospital. Similarly at the Six Nations hospital, which in February had 12 tuberculosis cases at one time, the superintendent reports that in June the number is reduced to 2. In both these cases the physicians in charge urge that there seems to be no other way than, as with small-pox and other acute contagions, to bring the 'open' or expectorating and most dangerous cases of consumption to the hospital and by force, if necessary, keep them in hospital until discharged by the medical officer. In view of the mortality rates already given, illustrating the persistence of infectious cases, causing the same band year after year to have a high death-rate, while other bands show as continued a freedom, there seems no reason why such powers should not be given the agent to deal in a compulsory manner with such cases on being so advised by the medical officer.

In the same year, 1909, on instructions from the Department of Indian Affairs, Dr. Bryce and Dr. J.D. Lafferty examined 243 children in 8 schools in Alberta, as a result of which Bryce concluded that every child seeking admission to a residential school already had TB, and that the infection had been contracted at home on the reserves.  See page 5 of The Story of a National Crime:

(a) Tuberculosis was present equally in children at every age;

(b) in no instance was a child awaiting admission to school found free from tuberculosis; hence it was plain that infection was got in the home primarily;

(c) the disease showed an excessive mortality in the pupils between five and ten years of age.


In his annual report to the Department of Indian Affairs in 1913, Bryce once again specifically attributed the prevalence of TB on the reserves to the health habits of the Indians:

4. As the child grows and is able to play on the floor, a special danger results from the dirt of the floor with tuberculous expectorations too often present in the small badly kept houses.  The first point is to urge constantly the scrubbing and cleaning of floors; but for the baby it is essential that a clean sheet or rug be placed where it may creep about, so that it will not soil the food it may have in hand on the filthy floor.  It is certain that more tubercular infection is transmitted thus than in any other way.


In summary, it is clear from the DIA Annual Reports, and from Bryce himself, that the federal government took active steps to determine the reason for the prevalence of TB among the Indian population and in residential schools, and did its best to treat it through improved standards for ventilation and sanitation in residential schools, the employment of medical staff, and the building of Indian TB hospitals.  It is also clear from Bryce’s statements attributing the spread of TB in the residential schools to the health habits of Indians on the reserves that little could be done to alleviate TB until the health habits on the reserves changed through instruction and persuasion.

In short, there was no genocide on the part of the federal government through its failure to implement Dr. Bryce’s recommendations in The Story of a National Crime, only one of which had anything to do with student health.

The very idea is a non sequitur.


Nina Green is an independent researcher and a regular contributor to The Dorchester Review.

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  • William Wilhelm on

    Nina Green has again, in her own articulate fashion, delivered the coup de grace, to the facetious and offensive narrative of Canadian genocide. Truth matters despite the preponderance of those committed to ignoring it. "Gratias tibi ago !

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