UBC to review honorary degree given to former principal of Kamloops Indian Residential School

Jun 1 2021, 10:41 am

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has confirmed it will review the honorary degree conferred in 1986 to Bishop John O’Grady, one-time principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

In a joint statement, UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal Lesley Cormack said the issues raised “are deeply upsetting, and we take them seriously.”

As such, “UBC’s Senate will be reviewing this matter immediately per our processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients.”

In the statement, Ono and Cormack said they were “heartbroken” to learn of the confirmation of the burial site of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last week.

“We can only imagine the grief and pain that the families and communities of the missing children are feeling,” the statement said. “UBC stands with First Nations seeking the truth about the missing children. We support having the children returned to their families and communities with proper protocols. May we honour their lives and the survivors and never forget their stories.”

The Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation announced on Thursday that the remains of 215 students had been found buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Operating from 1890 until 1978, the British Columbian school was the largest institution in the Indian Affairs residential school system.

“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir. “Some were as young as three years old.”

The current findings are “preliminary,” and the survey of the grounds is expected to continue until mid-June, Tk’emlups te Secwépemc said.

O’Grady was principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1939 to 1952.

The Missing Children Project, which documents the deaths and burial places of students who died at residential schools, has identified the remains of more than 4,100 children.

The statement from Ono and Cormack is in full below:

Our thoughts are with the families, the communities, residential school survivors and all who mourn. We have lowered our flags on both campuses for 215 hours, until sundown on Sunday June 6, in shared grief and to pay our respects to the children of the Kamloops Residential School, their families and communities.

We know that this news will reopen wounds and spark a lot of grief, anger and sadness for many in the UBC community. If you need support, services are available: through the First Nations Longhouse, and counselling services on both the UBC Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.

The university is also aware of the community concerns relating to the honorary degree conferred in 1986 to Bishop John O’Grady, one-time principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. 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.

As was noted in the Apology issued on the occasion of the opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre in 2018, the 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. For much of that time, Indigenous children were forcibly removed to schools that sought to break their ties to their families, communities, and culture.

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 percent. 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.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of National Indigenous History Month, when we celebrate the history, heritage and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada.

For UBC in particular, that means celebrating the history of the Musqueam and Syilx peoples on whose traditional and unceded territories the main UBC campuses have the privilege to be situated.

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

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.

We have made mistakes, and we cannot presume that we will not make more in the future. Our commitment is to learn from our mistakes, and, together, to continue to move forward in partnership with Indigenous peoples. Our commitment, as a university, and as a community of many members, must be strong, and must always result in meaningful action. That is our realization and it is our duty to act.

It is also our duty to remember the victims of the residential school system and to honour them.

Eric ZimmerEric Zimmer

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