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

UBC will review an honorary degree given to Bishop John O’Grady in 1986 following the news of 215 Indigenous children’s remains found at a former residential school he was a principal of for six years.

In a media release shared on May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation wrote that the children’s remains were detected with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist buried on the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds. The children’s deaths were undocumented and included those as young as three years old, according to the statement.

Criticism emerged on social media about UBC’s decision to award O’Grady an honorary degree in the 80s.

On Saturday, UBC tweeted that it is aware of the concerns, and that the Senate will review the matter “immediately per [its] processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients.”

“The issues raised are deeply upsetting and we take them seriously,” one of the tweets read.

The university will also lower flags on both the Vancouver and Okanagan campuses to pay respect to the children, President Santa Ono tweeted earlier in the day.

In an interview with The Ubyssey on Monday, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said the Senate Tributes Committee, which handles honorary degree nominations, will meet this week to determine whether to rescind O’Grady’s award.

Part of the committee’s discussions will involve external consultations with “academics” and the Indigenous community, Ramsey said. Once the committee reaches a decision, it will bring the matter before the Senate for a vote.

Ramsey did not provide a specific date for the review’s completion, but said that the process would be “expedited.”

In a transcript of a speech given at the time O’Grady received the award, then-UBC President David Strangeway spoke highly of the bishop’s work.

“You have appreciated the role of education in the lives of the people of this province. You have responded with energy, imagination and adaptability to the needs of our people, especially in the Interior of the Province. We appreciate your vision,” Strangeway said.

The criticism surrounding O’Grady’s honorary degree has expanded to other previous recipients viewed as problematic.

In a comment below the university’s tweets, UBC Students Against Bigotry raised concerns over Dr. John Furlong, who was given an honorary degree in 2010.

In 2012, Furlong was accused of abusing Indigenous children as a teacher at Immaculata Catholic school in Burns Lake in the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation in 1969-1970. The allegations were raised again when Furlong was removed and then later reinstated as a keynote speaker for a UBC athletics event. None of the allegations were ever tested in court.

Student Senator-at-Large Julia Burnham called on UBC to review other honorary degree recipients.

“There is more than John O’Grady that we must reckon with and take responsibility for,” she tweeted.

For those looking for support right now, call the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1.866.925.4419.

This article has been updated to include a comment from UBC Media Relations on the timeline for the review process of O’Grady’s honorary degree.

This article has been updated to include that the Tributes Committee will also consult with the Indigenous community, and not just “academics,” to say that John Furlong worked at Immaculata Catholic school in Burns Lake and to add that none of the child abuse allegations against John Furlong have been tested in court.