The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Driving along the highway listening to the CBC, I was a little surprised to hear a familiar name mentioned. It took me back long years. I was less than ten years old, and we were on our way to or from church, and my mother was explaining why the hall next to Earlscourt United Church was named Peter Bryce Hall. She told me that Peter Bryce was the former minister, and being a good man who was intensely involved with his congregation, ready to roll up his sleeves and join in whenever work needed to be done, he was held in great affection, and the congregation had named the church hall after him.
But the comment I heard on the CBC had to do with the residential schools to which so many First Nations children were sent. A connection? A little research on the internet and in The Canadian Encyclopedia made clear that this was an altogether different Peter Bryce, though there was an interesting parallel between the two men, both of Scottish background, both men of conscience.
Dr Peter Henderson Bryce was the elder of the two, born in Mount Pleasant Ontario in 1853. Trained as a physician in the period when enlightened medicine was making revolutionary changes in public health, he was the first secretary of the Ontario Board of Health, responsible for such things as sanitation, disease prevention and statistics. Hired in 1907 as medical officer for the federal Departments of Immigration and Indian Affairs, he was assigned the job of making a report on Indian Schools in the west. He presented a shocking account of the rampant TB among children at the residential schools, a mortality rate of 24%. His report was the beginning of a long struggle to improve things.
Opposed to Bryce on most issues was the Canadian poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendant of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, who was committed to assimilation of the remaining Indian tribes at whatever cost in misery and death. Bryce, the troublemaker, was dismissed from Indian Affairs in 1913 though he continued at The Department of Immigration. In 1922 he published an 18 page pamphlet attacking the bureaucrats at Indian Affairs, particularly Duncan Campbell Scott, for keeping information on the health of native children from Canadians. Deeply embittered by now, Bryce called his pamphlet The Story of a National Crime.
Meanwhile, as they say in storytelling, who and where was the other Peter Bryce? What I learned of him comes mostly from the website of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church. Born in Scotland in 1878, this Peter Bryce was raised a Presbyterian. The story is told that in his teens he asked his father about the people called Methodists. Told that they were good people and very kind to the poor, he set out to learn more, and by 1903 he was a Methodist preacher in Newfoundland travelling from one parish to another by rowboat.
While studying divinity at Victoria College in Toronto, Bryce heard about a “shacktown” in Earlscourt, to the northwest of Toronto. Soon settled at a church in that neighbourhood, he immersed himself in the life of the community, taking up hammer and saw to help rebuild tarpaper shacks as winter came on, despatching coal from his own basement when others were short.
A less controversial figure than the other Peter Bryce, he recruited the merchant aristocracy of the city to his good causes. Lady Eaton helped finance a nursery for working mothers. Joseph Atkinson, publisher of The Toronto Star, collaborated in the founding of a Christmas fund. Peter Bryce went on to work with Atkinson and The Star in support of causes like Unemployment Insurance, Workmen’s Compensation, Old Age pensions.
So, a little study in coincidence, synchronicity: a very brief account two good men with the same name living in Canada early in the 20th century; a biography of either one would make a worthwhile research project.