Sub-Committee Consideration of the Honorary Degree Granted to John Fergus O’Grady

The Honorary Degree Granted to John Fergus O’Grady

The Vancouver Senate has directed that the report set out below be made public and that comments on its contents and recommendations be received from the community, both within and beyond the University, until at least 24 June 2022. Once that date has passed the Senate will reconvene to consider the report, a summary of comments received, any revisions in response to those comments,and make such decisions on the recommendations therein as it sees fit.

Comments may be submitted by email to:


Christopher Eaton

Clerk to the Senate

Report of the Tributes Committee Sub-Committee to Consider the Honorary Degree Granted to John Fergus O’Grady

1. Referral to the Sub-Committee Regarding the Late Bishop O’Grady

The tragedies of the Canadian Indian residential school system –including the death and disappearance of Indigenous children –have been known for many years; in the summer of 2021 the confirmations of specific places with the remains of children have drawn this system to the forethoughts of many in British Columbia, Canada and around the world. The University of British Columbia, in particular, was reminded by many people that in 1986 the university granted an honorary Doctor of Laws to John Fergus O’Grady, who at that time was the Catholic Bishop of Prince George. Prior to his being appointed a bishop, the then Father O’Grady was a member of the MissionaryOblates of Mary Immaculate and, in that capacity, he was Principal at various Indian Residential Schools, including Kamloops Indian Residential School in the 1940s. There have been many calls from both within the University and from the broader community for the honourary degree to be revoked. The Senate Tributes Committee formed a Sub-Committee to consider the matter and make recommendations, through the Committee, to Senate. A special process was viewed as necessary as University policy is presently silent on if,how and when an honorary degree may be revoked. While this report focusses solely on O’Grady as a timely matter, the Sub-Committee is acutely aware of the gap in University policy and the need for this to be addressedas soon as possible should other honorary degrees need to be reviewed.

2. Sub-Committee Process and Considerations

The Sub-Committee held early discussions with Chancellor Steven Lewis Point and Professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Director of the Indian Residential School Historyand Dialogue Centre,with respect to the conduct of work of the Sub-Committee. Following these discussions, the Sub-Committee articulated seven overarching questions concerning the revocation of HonoraryDegrees (Appendix 1). From these, the Sub-Committee considered the following as relevant to the review of the HD granted to Bishop O’Grady:

  • What information would be needed to consider revoking a degree and who, either within or beyond the University, should be involved in making such a decision?
  • What burden of proof, either for outside processes, or for processes within the University, should be required for UBC to revoke an honorary degree?
  • What procedural fairness considerations should be applied when considering revoking an honorary degree?
  • Would the procedural fairness considerations above necessitate someone being able to respond to allegations made against them?

The Sub-Committee held a series of meetings to consider the seven overarching questions –a synthesis of those discussions is presented in this report. The Sub-Committee also noted and took into consideration the large number of correspondencesreflecting opposite sides of the argument to revoke O’Grady’s honorarydegree.In arriving at its recommendation, the Sub-Committee:

  • considered various reports in the media;
  • reviewed documents relevant to its work; and
  • considered a confidential report provided by Professor Michael Higgins which summarized his review of files he had obtained from the appropriate Oblate authorities in Ottawa and by their archivist in Richelieu. That information was only made available to the Sub-Committee on the understanding that it would not be made public as part of this process. The Sub-Committee understands that processes to make that documentation available to the public more broadly are underwayand that some of these records may already be with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

3. Findings

The decisions of the Sub-Committee are based on the following findings derived from the work of others. The Sub-Committee recognizes that there will not be 100% certainty with respect to its findings. In making its determinations, the Sub-Committee used the “balance of probabilities” standard of proof which means the Committee found certain things to be “more likely than not” to have occurred. UBC awarded Bishop O’Grady an honorary degree in 1986. The basis for the award is noted in the citation as recognition for these long years of service among the communities in the Interior of British Columbia and because of his appreciation for the role of education within those communities.

Given the confirmation in the summer of 2021 of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, on the historical and unceded territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc peoples, the Sub-Committee considered in what ways may John Fergus O’Grady be seen as a party to deaths of children during his tenure as Principal.

O’Grady was Principal at the Kamloops Indian Residential School for thirteen years from1939-1952, during the time it held Canada’s highest residential school population. With regards to his time there, the Sub-Committee found an article by the Curator of the Prince George Exploration Place Museum & Science centre, Alyssa Leier, particularly helpful. She notes

“It is known that there were at least six recorded “pupil deaths” between the years 1945-1950 when he was principal. Records of other years could not be found.Five of the six of these recorded deaths were blamed on disease, and one from a lack of due care and supervision signed off on by O’Grady himself. As for the other five, it is documented by staff working at Kamloops Indian Residential School that due to overcrowding, it was impossible to isolate the sick children from the healthy ones, leaving many healthy children to get sick during their time there.”

In her review of O’Grady’s legacy, Leier concludes:

“During his contentious career, O’Grady headed three different residential schools (all of which have documented physical and verbal abuse), and as the Bishop of the Prince George Diocese, O’Grady continued to supervise over residential schools where children continued to receive verbal and physical abuse. After his retirement in 1986, O’Grady remarked that he had relatively few disappointments or regrets during his career. After listing those few disappointments, none of them included the untimely deaths of pupils during his time in Kamloops or the alleged cases of physical and sexual abuse of students he presided over”

Following his review of theconfidentialarchival information provided to him in confidence by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate related toO’Grady’s tenure as Principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Professor Higgins concluded:

“In conclusion: It is not unreasonable to surmise that matters referring to problems arising in the schools –Kamloops specifically—regarding instances of violence, disciplining, any form of abuse, student illness and death, may have been kept as a separate file, i.e. Personnel, and maintained consequently under the canonical rubric of sub secreto.These files may have already been submitted by the Oblates, as per their signed agreement, to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, or they may be still pending prior to settling any outstanding legal matter. If such files exist, they were not included in the materials sentto me.”

Finally, Sub-Committee considered whether it is possible to believe that O’Grady did not know about these deaths or that he did not acquiesce in their burial in what by that time was most probably recognized/designated as a cemetery. Notably, there appearsto be no evidence in the materials provided by the Oblates to indicate that O’Grady contacted the parents of children who had died during his tenure as Principal to inform them of the death of their child.

4. Recommendation to Senate

Although direct evidence of O’Grady’s role in the death of the children is not available, the Sub-Committeeadoptedabalance of probabilities as its burden of proof, which led the Sub-Committee to conclude that 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 dignityas the chief administrator of the residential school. Based on its deliberations and consultations, the Sub-Committee recommends:

  1. That the Senate rescind its approval of the Honorary Degree awarded to the late John Fergus O’Grady
  2. That the University of British Columbia conduct a historic reflection on:
    • its role in the subjugation of Indigenous people and communities;
    • the role that its scholars played in producing some of the evidence that policy makers used to justify their practices with respect to Indigenous persons in this province and country; and
    • the collective disregard that most of the academic community demonstrated as to the atrocities that were being enacted in the name of the public of British Columbia.
  3. The Sub-Committee strongly urges the Universityto further create conditions under which:
    • records of the existence and activities of residential schools can be preserved and studied;
    • students can be exposed to evidence of what has occurred; and
    • the University as a whole can embrace a commitment to learning, and to becoming part of solutions in acollective journey toward truth and reconciliation.

While the Sub-Committee is aware that the first recommendationis largely symbolic in that Bishop O’Grady is no longer alive, the Sub-Committee make this recommendation both 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.

Respectfully submitted,

Vancouver Senate Tributes Committee Sub-Committee to Consider the Honorary Degree of John Fergus O’Grady

Dr. John H.V. Gilbert, Chair

Dr. Lawrence Burr

Dr. Michael Higgins

Dr. Sally Thorne

Dr. Sally Stewart

Laia Shpeller

Dr. Richard Vedan

Appendix 1.

The Seven Questions Posed to the Sub-Committee

In considering the revocation of honorary degrees, the committee attempted to address the following questions:

  1. In principle, can UBC honorary degrees be revoked?
  2. Under what criteria would the UBC revoke an honorary degree?
  3. What information would be needed to consider revoking a degree and who, either within or beyond the University, should be involved in making such a decision?
  4. What burden of proof, either for outside processes, or for processes within the University, should be required for UBC to revoke an honorary degree?
  5. What procedural fairness considerations should be applied when considering revoking an honorary degree?
  6. Would the procedural fairness considerations above necessitate someone being able to respond to allegations made against them?
  7. What other actions, either in addition to, or instead of revoking an honorary degree should UBC consider when concerns are raised or substantiated regarding a past honoree?

NB: Correspondence on this matter may be sent to