Calls grow for ‘rigorous review’ of honorary degree recipients as Senate considers revoking O’Grady degree

Following UBC’s announcement that it would be reconsidering the degree given to Bishop John O’Grady — a former principal at the Kamloops Indian Residential School — pressure has grown from the academic community to conduct an audit of all honorary degree recipients.

The AMS has joined the calls for a fulsome review of honorary degree recipients, as have faculty from the Allard School of Law.

Professor Emeritus John H.V. Gilbert, chair of the Senate Tributes Committee — the committee responsible for awarding honorary degrees — wrote in a UBC Broadcast on June 10 that the Tributes Committee is “gathering what information it can” on O’Grady.

“We do not intend to delay our consideration of this matter should that information not be forthcoming,” he wrote.

Gilbert also acknowledged the broader calls for “any honours granted to anyone associated with the residential school system to be reconsidered.”

“The Tributes Committee understands the Senate must have transparent processes and criteria for reconsidering honorary degrees so that those who were honoured by the university in the past are accorded fairness,” Gilbert wrote, adding that the committee will consult with the university and First Nations communities on this work.

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs and student senator Eshana Bhangu said that UBC should revoke O’Grady’s award and review others as “it’s shameful to see that our university has given honorary degrees to people who have been complicit in genocide.”

Bhangu said that as the university makes commitments to reconciliation and the Indigenous Strategic Plan, the institution has to address this.

If the university chooses not to revoke O’Grady’s award, Bhangu said the university’s “words and commitments to truth and reconciliation are just that. Words.”

Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, an Allard law professor and director at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, agreed with the need to review honorary degree recipients.

“I like the idea of having some sort of audit — like a rigorous review — and reconsideration of the situation that of course involves fairness for those recipients who are still with us in particular ... they have a right to be heard as well,” Turpel-Lafond told The Ubyssey.

Turpel-Lafond said that the review process should involve consultations with Indigenous peoples and survivors of the residential school system, as well as with honorary degree recipients who are still alive.

So far, she thinks that the Senate is on the right track. In particular, she pointed to UBC Chancellor Steven Point’s help in the process.

“We’re so fortunate to have Steven as UBC Chancellor to inform some of the cultural protocols and principles that need to guide us,” Turpel-Lafond said.

Bhangu said that it’s essential for the Senate to be transparent in this process, as it’s an “unprecedented situation.” She criticised the communications already — specifically that the Tributes Committee statement was not sent out to students.

“Key parts of the process need to be transparency and communication with all members of the UBC community,” she said.

Along with the review, Turpel-Lafond believes that UBC should do more to support residential school survivors.

“We have given honorary doctorates to some [survivors], but I think we should ... really be thinking about how we lend support — an affirmation — to their life work in terms of telling the story of what happened at the schools,” she said.