UBC reviews honorary degree given to principal of Kamloops Indian Residential School

A plaque is seen outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

The University of British Columbia is now reviewing an honorary degree given to Bishop John O’Grady in 1986.

O’Grady was at one time the principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School where the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds last week.

“The issues raised are deeply upsetting and we take them seriously. UBC’s Senate will be reviewing this matter immediately per our processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients,” UBC president Santa Ono said in a statement.

According to the Catholic Hierarchy website, Bishop John Fergus O’Grady was born in 1908 and died in 1998 in Prince George.

UBC says honorary degrees are given to “deserving individuals who have made substantial contributions to society.”

This includes “leading academics in all disciplines and creative minds in arts and performance; public intellectuals and opinion-makers; visionary leaders and exemplary public figures; and community builders and philanthropists. It is not known why the university gave such a degree to O’Grady in 1986.

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery Thursday after ground-penetrating radar confirmed what members had long said about the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was the largest institution of its kind in Canada.

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UBC has joined organizations and governments across Canada that have lowered their flags in shared grief and to pay their respects to the children, their families and their communities.

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Indian residential schools operated for more than a century as a partnership between the Canadian government and major churches, with the last school closing only in 1996, Ono explained.

“Many spent their entire childhoods in the schools and many died there, as we were starkly reminded last week: the mortality rates at some schools at times surpassed 60 per cent,” Ono continued in a statement. “Children suffered emotional or mental abuse, and many suffered physical and sexual abuse. The devastating legacy of the Indian residential school system has affected nearly every Indigenous family and the effects on communities are still here today.”

June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada.

“As last week’s news reminds us though, that history includes tragedy and sorrow as well as achievement and pride,” Ono said.

“Universities, including UBC, bear part of the responsibility for this history, not only for having trained many of the policymakers and administrators who operated the residential school system, and doing so little to address the exclusion from higher education that the schools so effectively created but also for tacitly accepting the silence surrounding it.”

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