The University of British Columbia is reviewing whether to rescind a 1986 doctorate it bestowed upon a Roman Catholic bishop who was once the principal of a residential school in Kamloops where the remains of 215 children have been discovered.
Matthew Ramsey, a spokesperson for UBC, said on Monday a committee of university senators will meet this week to debate the legacy of John Fergus O’Grady, the former bishop of Prince George, and agree on a plan to consult Indigenous communities and academics before making a recommendation.
“It is being expedited in recognition of the seriousness of this issue,” Mr. Ramsey said in an e-mailed statement.
University president Santa Ono said in a separate statement that UBC is aware of “community concerns” related to the law degree given to Mr. O’Grady since specialists using radar found remains at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops. The statement said the discovery is deeply upsetting and being taken seriously by the university, the main campus of which is on the traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam First Nation.
“Universities, including UBC, bear part of the responsibility for this history, not only for having trained many of the policy makers 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,” his statement said.
During the convocation in May, 1986, Mr. O’Grady, who died a decade later, was hailed for making education more accessible to local communities in the Interior and bringing “native and white communities closer together.”
“Fergus O’Grady served on the staffs of Native Indian schools in Mission and Kamloops, developing the first secondary school program in this province for the Native Peoples,” the program of the ceremony noted.
After three decades administering residential schools across the province, he became the bishop of Prince George, where he created a system of elementary and high schools that included both First Nations and non-Indigenous children.
Lisa Wilcox, who worked more than a decade for the Squamish First Nation on rights and title after graduating from UBC in 2006, said the response of so many institutions to last week’s news may indicate a watershed moment for Canadian society’s understanding of the country’s colonial past - and its influence on the present.
But Ms. Wilcox, who helped launch an online petition, said a research institution such as UBC should have known better than to fete a man who participated in such an oppressive system.
“It’s almost like they completely silenced and ignored the legacy of what was happening even though ... and those stories and the oral history was there,” said Ms. Wilcox, who is Indigenous but does not know which nation she is from because her mother was adopted.
More than 130 schools operated across Canada between the 1870s and 1996, and as many as 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were sent to them despite their families’ objections. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said 4,100 children died of disease or accidents at the schools. Estimates of children who went missing are as high as 6,000.
Daniel Rück, a historian of Indigenous lands and settler colonialism at the University of Ottawa, said Mr. O’Grady is the kind of man previous generations of non-Indigenous Canadians honoured and celebrated.
“O’Grady isn’t particularly special,” Dr. Rück wrote in an exchange over social media. “He was one of many prominent Canadian leaders who built their careers on the destruction of Indigenous nations and harming Indigenous children, and were never held accountable for the part they played in the genocide.
“The Canadian landscape is full of renamed places that honour people like Fergus O’Grady, and universities played a central role in training and celebrating people like him as well.”
B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Murray Rankin, said he expects the Catholic church to help identify the children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria and The Canadian Press
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