Senate subcommittee recommends rescission of former residential school principal’s honorary degree

This article contains mention of residential schools.

A subcommittee of the Senate Tributes Committee has recommended that UBC rescind Bishop John O’Grady’s honorary doctor of laws.

Last May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that it had detected the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. O’Grady, who was awarded an honorary degree from UBC in 1986, was the principal of the Kamloops Residential School from 1939 to 1952.

The university faced swift public backlash and community members urged the Senate to make a quick decision on the matter. UBC announced that the Senate Tributes Committee would conduct an “expedited” review of O’Grady’s degree at the end of May last year.

Dr. John Gilbert, chair of the Senate Tributes Committee, announced the recommendation of the degree’s rescission in a statement posted on the UBC News website earlier this evening, nearly a year after the matter emerged.

In its full report, the subcommittee assigned to look into the matter called the recommendation of rescission “largely symbolic” as O’Grady is dead, but argued that the subcommittee should do this “in reflection of O’Grady’s administration of this residential school, but also as a statement of UBC’s complicity in overlooking the systemic injustices that were occurring over that period of time with respect to Indigenous children.”

“It is more likely than not that O’Grady was aware of the deaths of some of those children and failed in his duty to protect them or to treat their deaths with dignity as the chief administrator of the residential school,” the subcommittee wrote in the report.

In order to reach this decision, the subcommittee looked at files from Catholic authorities and spoke with Chancellor Steven Lewis Point and Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

On top of the rescission of the degree, the subcommittee is recommending the university conduct a “historic reflection” on its role in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. In addition, the subcommittee is urging UBC to expose students more to the realities of residential schools.

The university has also committed to an audit of all honorary degrees awarded. Gilbert wrote in the statement that the Senate will develop a “robust process” to review those degrees in the coming months to “address concerns about other honorary degree holders with backgrounds of concern.”

This decision isn’t final — the Senate is now soliciting feedback from community members on the recommendation before reaching a final decision.

Community members can provide feedback to the Senate for the next 30 days to