A steadily growing initiative can be observed taking root in public spaces across Canada since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its report in 2015. It’s a collection of local campaigns that seek to address the way Canadians think about their collective history in the light of what we now understand to be a century-long attempt by Canada to carry out cultural genocide on Indigenous peoples; this period is now known as the Indian Residential School (IRS) era.
Across Canada, this re-evaluation is seeing community groups work to make commemoration something that reflects real history and deals with it truthfully. Whether it be the the renaming of of an elementary school in Regina, the reassessment of the legacy of Governor Cornwallis in Nova Scotia, or Montreal’s decision to stop commemorating the name of the colonial general who advocated distributing small-pox infected blankets to Indigenous people, a new and public honesty about Canada’s history is taking hold.
Thanks to the work of activists and educators, Canada’s National Cemetery — Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa — has also been a site of of reevaluation and reassessment. Beechwood is a natural place for the contributions of notable Canadians to be noted on grave stones and historical plaques, and the cemetery has dozens of such historical markers.
In the period since the TRC issued its calls to address Canadian’s knowledge deficit around the IRS era, three noteworthy Canadians with connections to the IRS period have had new historical plaques added to their burial sites at Beechwood,
Duncan Campbell Scott was the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs for nearly two decades in the early part of the 20th century. A powerful bureaucrat, it was his stated goal to “get rid of the Indian problem.” Much has been written about Scott’s malign influence on the IRS system but it was not until the past few years that his name has become widely known; it is now equated with the worst abuses of the residential school era.
Scott’s new plaque was added to his grave site in 2015 and is one of the easiest plaques to find — it is just across the road from Beechwood’s reception centre.
Nicholas Flood Davin was a 19th century journalist, publisher, and politician who spent much of his career in “Assiniboia” the area of the Canadian west that would become the Province of Saskatchewan. In a report commissioned by Prime Minister MacDonald, Davin made the case for establishment of “Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds”; in time this would be the basis of the Federal government’s plans for a church-run system of residential schools.
Davin wrote that, as far as “the adult Indian” was concerned, “Little can be done with him. He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all.” Davin also called for the hanging of Louis Riel.
His grave marker is on a large plinth, and as can be seen in the image at the top of this post, it includes a bronze likeness of Davin. It now also features the historical plaque shown above.
Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce
…was a courageous advocate for First Nations child health. In 1904, Dr. Bryce was hired by the Department of the Interior to manage public health issues in both the Immigration Department and Indian Affairs. In 1907, he issued a report critical of the health conditions in the residential school system of western Canada. His report also laid blame on the federal government for negligence that led to shocking death rates due to communicable disease, primarily tuberculosis. Statistics showed students were dying at rates between 24 to 69 per cent. Although the report was shared widely within the department, it did not gain much publicity. Duncan Campbell Scott, then head of Indian Affairs, dismissed Dr. Bryce’s recommendations to establish proper hospitals and overhaul the Indian education system, and eventually terminated funding for his research.
Upon his retirement in 1922, Dr. Bryce published the results of his report in his book The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.
Unlike the other two plaques, Dr. Bryce’s contains no attempt to balance his record; such qualifications are unneeded as his life’s work was of the utmost merit. Instead, the purpose of the plaque is to shine a light on his legacy of courage and advocacy for children.
Happily the last several years have seen Bryce’s grave site become a place of joyful commemoration, as visiting schoolchildren and other admirers — like the ones in the photo — have transformed his plot at Beechwood into a colourful shrine:
Thanks to the new appreciation of the contribution to history made by the good doctor, staff at the Beechwood reception centre have reported that the location of Dr. Bryce’s grave is now one of the most inquired-after in the entire cemetery.
Finding the plaques
Once you are at Beechwood Cemetery, go to the reception centre in the main building, beside the parking lot. They have visitor maps and the front desk staff can help you locate the plaque or plaques you wish to see. You can also download the map here.
The free what3words smartphone app has mapped the entire world into 3m x 3m squares, and assigned a unique three word address to each one; among many other uses, it is also perfect for finding grave sites in a large cemetery like Beechwood. If you have the app installed, here are the words you can enter to find each plaque:
Dr. Peter Bryce: lives.nets.careful
Nicholas Flood Davin: critic.lookout.manage
Duncan Campbell Scott: ditched.below.applies