WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
UBC says it is reviewing an honorary degree given to a Catholic bishop, now deceased, who served as principal of the Kamloops residential school where the remains of up to 215 children are believed to have been found.
John Fergus O'Grady was born in Ontario and educated in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, where he was ordained in 1934. He then worked at several schools in B.C.'s Interior, including the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
While it is not clear whether any of the deaths occurred under O'Grady's tenure, his involvement in the residential school system and, in particular, a letter he sent to parents in 1948 ahead of the Christmas holidays has prompted some members of UBC's community to demand the university rescind an honorary law degree he received in 1986.
The letter, which has been posted to the B.C. Teacher's Federation website and circulated on social media, informs parents of students at the Kamloops residential school that their children must be returned by Jan. 3 after the Christmas holidays or they will not be allowed to see them the following year.
"This is a privilege which is being granted if you observe the [rules]," the letter says.
The exact origin of the letter is not clear, but it highlights the conditions that Indigenous families were subjected to under the residential school system with children being taken from their parents with no ability to bring them home.
Just 11 years prior to O'Grady's letter, four young children froze to death trying to escape the Lejac residential school west of Prince George, B.C., resulting in a federal review but little change.
In a statement posted to Twitter and online, UBC said, "the matters raised are deeply upsetting" and that its senate will be reviewing O'Grady's degree "per our processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients."
Several citizens in Prince George are also calling on the city to rename O'Grady Road in the College Heights neighbourhood — an area the bishop was instrumental in developing.
The 'Bulldozer Bishop'
Following his time in Kamloops, the bulk of O'Grady's career was in northern British Columbia, where he served as the first ever head of the Prince George Diocese for the Catholic church from 1956 until his retirement in 1986. There, he earned the nickname "The Bulldozer Bishop" for his role in land development and construction of new schools throughout the region.
He founded Domano Construction and bought up land that became known as College Heights, a major neighbourhood built around Prince George College, a Catholic high school O'Grady opened in 1960.
It was reported to be the first integrated high school in the province, welcoming both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students side by side. O'Grady gave multiple interviews at the time and said he wanted to incorporate Indigenous culture into his curriculum. He later boasted of having the highest numbers of Indigenous high school graduates in the province.
But as the highest-ranking official in the region, O'Grady continued to preside over residential schools that children were forced to attend and where they continued to receive verbal and physical abuse. The Lejac Residential School northwest of Prince George, for example, continued to operate until 1976. At hearings for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, former student Marlene Jack testified about her time there in the 1970s.
"Always telling us how we're gonna be so useless. They tell you every day that you'll amount to nothing. It sort of sticks with you."
B.C. Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Terry Teegee said he has heard many similar stories.
"Many of my community members were brought there, including my older brother and sisters," Teegee said. "It was quite a notorious school … they witnessed a lot of abuse."
In 2020, members of the Lake Babine First Nation filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, claiming RCMP had failed to adequately investigate abuses reported to have occurred at schools run by O'Grady, including Prince George College.
O'Grady's successor as head of the diocese, Hubert O'Connor, resigned in 1991 when he was charged with the rape and indecent assault of four Indigenous students and staff who worked for him between 1964 and 1968. He was ultimately convicted on two counts.
A 'complex figure'
Whether O'Grady was aware of the behaviour of those under him is unknown. He was seemingly well-liked by his students and staff and, upon his death in 1998, members of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc were reported to have paid him special respect.
But in a thesis written for UBC by Kevin Beliveau, a Catholic teacher and one of O'Grady's former students, the success of O'Grady's "integrated" education plan is called into question.
Beliveau notes that many of the Indigenous "arts" and "culture" programs seem to have been window dressing for O'Grady's efforts to attract donations from around the world by playing into stereotypes of a wild, untamed northern Canada where Indigenous people needed saving. He also notes that soon after the federal government stopped subsidizing private schools for Indigenous students, efforts at recruiting them dropped.
"O'Grady remains a complex figure who appeared convinced that he was acting in the 'best interests' of Aboriginal people," Beliveau wrote. "It has, however, been difficult to document any 'benevolence' … His missionary mindset was predicated on the assumption of European spiritual and cultural superiority."
In 2001, Prince George College, now renamed O'Grady High, shut down permanently due to a lack of funds.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society has called on the federal government and the Catholic Church to be held responsible for the deaths that occurred in Kamloops.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.