UBC Senate votes to rescind honorary degree given to bishop involved in residential schools

Bishop John Fergus O'Grady displays his honorary UBC law degree in 1986. Right: A letter from O'Grady to residential school students' parents in 1948. (Prince George Newspaper Archives/BCTF - image credit)
Bishop John Fergus O'Grady displays his honorary UBC law degree in 1986. Right: A letter from O'Grady to residential school students' parents in 1948. (Prince George Newspaper Archives/BCTF - image credit)

The University of British Columbia's Vancouver Senate voted Wednesday evening to rescind an honorary degree given to the late Catholic bishop John Fergus O'Grady, a priest and the former principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School where the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation is investigating possible unmarked burial sites.

The honorary degree was bestowed in 1986, when O'Grady retired after 20 years as the head of the Prince George Diocese.

Katherine Hensel, a Secwépemc lawyer and legal counsel to the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, spoke before the senate's meeting and said the community appreciates UBC's efforts to address past mistakes.

"The pain is acute and it is helpful to have that acknowledged by UBC and other institutions," Hensel said, adding that the investigation into possible graves and the reckoning with Canada's past is an ongoing, "arduous" process for Indigenous people.

Submitted by Hensel Barristers
Submitted by Hensel Barristers

"It does remove a source of pain to survivors and to the community, and to all of us who are directly, inter-generationally and laterally affected by the legacy of residential schools," she said.

Professor Emeritus John Gilbert, who chairs the Senate Tributes Committee that studied O'Grady's role in the residential school system, said he was grateful the vote was passed.

"A very, very, very large thank you to everyone who responded to our report from across British Columbia, Canada and the world," he said.

"I think we all recognize that conversations like this will have to continue and I'm absolutely delighted that we have your 100 per cent support."

Wednesday's vote passed unanimously, with one abstention, and the move to rescind O'Grady's degree was one of three recommendations in an omnibus motion.

The second recommendation called on the university to conduct a historic reflection on:

  • its role in subjugating Indigenous people and communities.

  • the role its scholars played in producing evidence used to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous people in B.C. and Canada.

  • the disregard the academic community had for the "atrocities" committed in the name of the public of B.C.

In the third, the senate said UBC should do more to create conditions where:

  • residential school records can be preserved and studied.

  • students can be taught and shown the evidence of what happened in those schools.

  • the university can commit to learning and working toward solutions in "a collective journey toward truth and reconciliation."

Controversial past

O'Grady's tenure at the Kamloops residential school came to light when a letter attributed to him was posted to the B.C. Teacher's Federation website and then shared widely on social media.

Dated Nov. 18, 1948, the letter tells parents that their children are expected back at the school by Jan. 3, once Christmas holidays end.

If the children are not returned to school on time they will not be allowed to go home from Christmas next year, reads the letter.

It goes on to inform parents that seeing their children over Christmas is a "privilege which is being granted" by the school and government.

O'Grady's legacy — and that of many other individuals associated with Canada's residential school system — is being re-evaluated since the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc announced that ground penetrating radar had revealed potential unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Since then, several other First Nations across Canada said they, too, had found possible gravesites of children who were forced to attend residential schools.

During Wednesday's senate meeting, UBC President and Vice Chancellor Santa Ono promised to see that a review of other honorary degrees given to people who were involved in residential schools, or other racist and discriminatory practices such as Canadian internment camps, is "adequately resourced."