What happened in Kamloops was part of a national crime

9 June 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Some may find this column disturbing, as it is about the deaths of Indigenous people a century or more ago. Moreover, in quoting from a 1922 report, some of the words used then (e.g. Indians) are not acceptable today. But it is important to quote verbatim. I am grateful to Andrew Nikiforuk, by the way, whose June 2 article in The Tyee reminded me of this story.


I cannot imagine what Indigenous people may have felt if they read a recent letter in the Times Colonist about the discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children in Kamloops. As part of what seems to be an attempt to downplay the significance of the deaths, the writer stated “without knowing what killed the Aboriginal children in Kamloops, there is no reason to suspect there was criminal activity.” He is wrong, very wrong, as are others who may think like him.

There was a crime, indeed “a national crime”, and it was called that 99 years ago. In a 1922 booklet, ‘The Story of a National Crime’, Dr. Peter Bryce, Chief Medical Officer of the Immigration and Indian Department (as it was then called) from 1904 to 1921, described what had happened to the health of Indigenous people, including in the residential schools, as a “criminal disregard for the treaty pledges to guard the welfare” of Indigenous people. (His report is available online.)

But his reports were largely ignored by the government and he was compelled by his oath of office to not disclose what he knew. So not only was there a crime, it was covered up until Dr. Bryce retired in 1921 and felt free to speak out.

Each year from 1904 to 1914, Dr. Bryce states in his 1922 booklet, he“wrote an annual report on the health of the Indians, published in the Departmental report”. And with specific reference to the residential schools he noted “The annual medical reports from year to year made reference to the unsatisfactory health of the pupils”.

In 1907 he also made a “special inspection of thirty-five Indian schools in the three prairie provinces”. The report on this, he wrote, “was published separately (and) the recommendations contained in the report were never published and the public knows nothing of them”. This 1907 report found that in the 15 years of their existence “24 per cent of all the pupils which had been in the schools were known to be dead” (so probably an under-estimate), while in “one school on the File Hills reserve, which gave a complete return to date, 75 percent were dead at the end of the 16 years since the school opened”.

Then in 1909 he undertook a special investigation of 8 schools in the Calgary area, finding very high levels of TB in the schools and in the Indigenous population.  But, reports Dr. Bryce, “no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made” by the 1909 and 1907 reports, and a letter he wrote to the Minister in 1911 complained that “I have not received a single communication with reference to carrying out the Suggestions of our [1909] report”.

Instead, in 1913 Duncan Scott, whom Dr. Bryce – in a 1911 letter to the Minister – had already accused of actively opposing any action on his reports, was made Deputy Minister of the Department, with predictable results. In June 1914 he wrote to Dr. Bryce putting a stop to his annual reports.

In fact, Dr. Bryce wrote in 1922, “from 1913 up to the time when Dr. W. A. Roche [who had been appointed Minister in 1913] was eliminated from the government in 1917 . . . the activities of the Chief Medical Inspector of the Indian Department, had in practice ceased”.

So yes, there was a crime, both in the “criminal disregard” of the obligations of the government to protect the health of Indigenous people, perhaps especially in the residential schools, but more generally. And part of that criminal disregard was the ignoring of Dr. Bryce’s reports and recommendations and the suppression both of the reports and the work of Dr. Bryce.

Facing this truth is one step in the process of reconciliation.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Climate change, young people and the courts

(Published as ‘On climate, it’s short-term pain for long-term gain, backed by courts’)

Dr Trevor Hancock

1 June 2021

699 words

One of the biggest challenges in addressing climate change is that it’s a very slow-moving crisis. We need to take action now in order to avert problems many years, even decades into the future, but our system is biased against such action. Short-term pain for long-term gain has never been a popular message, and is not likely to get you re-elected, while the business cycle is too focused on the short-term bottom line. 

In the case of climate change, moreover, we are asking older adults in positions of power to make decisions that not only may adversely affect their situation here and now, but where the benefits will likely come after they are dead and will largely benefit people on the other side of the world.

However, this message resonates with younger people, since they will be alive when the adverse impacts on society of climate change, loss of biodiversity and other massive human-created ecological changes are felt. Which is why young people and NGOs around the world are taking their governments  – and in some cases, corporations – to court, where they are winning significant victories.

The situation was summarised by Chris Tollefson, a law professor at UVic and Executive Director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, speaking at the opening plenary of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics in late May (you can also find much of this on the website of the US Climate Change Litigation database).

In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court, in a case brought by the Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizens, upheld an earlier court ruling that the European Convention on Human Rights applied to the government’s actions on climate chgange. It found the government had a duty of care to protect the right to life and a responsibility to reduce emissions based on the science; specifically, a 25 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.

More recently, reported Bill McKibben in The New Yorker,a Dutch court has ruled that Shell must markedly increase its planned cuts to emissions. Noting that “severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life”, a spokesperson for the court stated: “the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights” and that “the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests”. Powerful findings indeed!

In France, a case brought by four NGOs resulted in a ruling in 2021 that “France’s inaction has caused ecological damage from climate change” and that “France could be held responsible for failing to meet its own climate and carbon budget goals under EU and national law”.

In Germany, a case brought by youth argued that the reduction targets in the Federal Climate Protection Act were insufficient to protect their human rights. In April 2021 the federal Constitutional Court ruled in their favour, striking down parts of the Act. Of particular importance, the court found “one generation must not be allowed to consume large parts of the CO2 budget . . .  if this would at the same time leave future generations with a radical reduction burden”. In other words, future generations have rights today.

In Australia, a case brought by 8 school children argued that the Environment Minister had a “duty of care” and was legally obliged to consider potential harm to them in the future in deciding whether to allow a coal mining project to proceed. Australia’s ABC reported the Federal Court judge found climate change would have “catastrophic” and “startling” impacts on Australia’s children, the mine would increase that risk and a duty of care does exist.

Tollefson, who is counsel for the plaintiffs in the La Rose case here in Canada, summarised the reasons for these cases as “a response to democratic failure, an invitation for judicial oversight and an invitation to enhance the role of best available science in political discourse” – quite an indictment of our current system.

Even though the cases in Canada and the USA are hitting snags, these rulings hold out hope that young people, NGOs and the courts are able to hold governments and corporations responsible for the harms caused by their actions, or their failure to act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar

at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

BC flunks international biodiversity targets

26 May 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

702 words

Since last week’s column about BC’s sad new reputation as a hotspot for biodiversity loss, a troubling report – The BC Biodiversity Report Card – was released by the Wilderness Committee and Ecojustice.

For those unfamiliar with these organisations, Ecojustice is Canada’s largest environmental law charity, taking on public interest cases to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment for all, while the Wilderness Committee works to preserve wilderness, protect wildlife, defend parks, safeguard public resources and fight for a healthy climate. The report was also reviewed by Professor Sarah Otto, a distinguished zoologist and former Director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, and Justina Ray of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

All of which is to say, I trust this report, which is a review of the extent to which the Aichi Targets have been met in BC. The Targets are a key part of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, established under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) by the nations of the world in 2010. Not only is Canada a signatory, we host the CBD Secretariat in Montreal.

The Plan “required all governments to make measurable progress in conserving the planet’s wildlife and natural systems by the end of 2020”, notes the BC Report Card. It laid out 20 goals in five strategic areas, including mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society, reducing the direct pressures on biodiversity and promoting sustainable use, safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, and enhancing the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services.

So how are we doing? The UN Environment Program’s 2020 report “Making Peace with Nature” is blunt: “None of the global goals for the protection of life on Earth have been fully met, including those in the strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–2020 and its Aichi biodiversity targets.” None, not one! Globally, only 6 of the 20 targets have been even partially met.

Here in BC, where we have “the richest biodiversity in Canada, but also the highest number of species at risk”, things are not any better. “Under Canada’s laws”, the BC Report Card notes, “British Columbia has primary responsibility for protecting biodiversity within the province, including most species, natural habitats, and landscapes”.

Sadly, Ecojustice and the Wilderness Committee gave BC a failing grade in 4 of the 5 areas they considered: Protection and recovery of both species at risk and ecosystems, the protection of natural habitats of all species and ecosystems and other laws to protect biodiversity. Only one area got better than an ‘F’, with BC attaining a ‘C-‘ by protecting 15.5 per cent of its land base (the Aichi target was 17 percent).

Among the major failures noted is the absence of a Species at Risk Act, making BC – with its rich but at-risk biodiversity  – “one of the few remaining provinces without a stand-alone law” to do this. Other failures include not protecting enough land to save most of B.C.’s wildlife and not reducing “the loss of all natural habitats by 50 per cent from 2010 levels”.

The failure to meet the 2017 commitment by John Horgan to enact a Species at Risk law is one of the outstanding betrayals of the BC environment by this government, along with their continued support for LNG fracking and their failure to protect old-growth forest. 

Indeed, the Fairy Creek blockade epitomizes the NDP’s failure. Right in the Premier’s own constituency, the RCMP are hauling people away for doing what the NDP is not doing; protecting old growth forests and the biodiversity they contain in the face of the determination by the forest-destruction industry to log as much old growth as they can, as quickly as they can.

In fact, the Wilderness Committee reported earlier this month, based on government data, that there had been a 43 per cent increase in approved old-growth cutblocks in the twelve months from April 30th 2020.

The BC Report Card states “we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis on par with the climate crisis”. When will the government wake up to this crisis, stop the assault on BC’s biodiversity and introduce the strong, innovative biodiversity law recommended by the  Old-growth Strategic Review Panel?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar

at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.