UBC will review honorary degree granted to former Catholic bishop John Fergus O'Grady

He was principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1939 to 1952

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      The so-called Bulldozer Bishop will come under greater scrutiny as a result of the discovery of 215 Indigenous children's bodies on the grounds of the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School.

      Bishop John Fergus O'Grady was born in 1908 and became an ordained priest of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1934.

      From 1939 to 1952, he was principal of Kamloops Indian Residential School. In 1967, he was appointed as the bishop of Prince George, a position he held until his retirement in 1986.

      That's the same year UBC awarded O'Grady with an honorary degree. At the time, the university praised O'Grady for his "vision" and because "he seized on the opportunity to make education more accessible to local communities in the Interior and to do so in a way which would bring the native and white communities closer together".

      Now, UBC is rethinking this honorary degree as a result of "community concerns".

      "The issues raised are deeply upsetting and we take them seriously," UBC stated on its Twitter feed. "UBC's Senate will be reviewing this matter immediately per our processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients."

      According to a 2001 UBC master's thesis by Kevin Edward Vincente Beliveau, O'Grady was principal of St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Mission from 1936 to 1939 before heading Kamloops Indian Residential School.

      Beliveau wrote that O'Grady "oversaw Kamloops Residential School when it had Canada's largest residential school population".

      On May 27, the leadership of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc revealed that the children's remains were detected on the former school's property by ground-penetrating radar specialists.

      "To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir stated in a news release. “Some were as young as three years old."

      There were also 50 documented deaths at the school, which is on the traditional territory of the Secwépemc people.

      There's no indication yet about the children's identities or when they were buried in unmarked graves. 

      The Kamloops Indian Residential School was built in 1890 and closed in 1978. It was operated by the Catholic Church's Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1893 until 1969, when it was turned over to the federal government to be run as a day school.

      O'Grady also had a short stint as principal of Cariboo Indian Residential School in 1952 and 1953 before he became "Provincial of all English-speaking Oblate priests in Canada".

      Beliveau's thesis did not examine nor speculate on allegations of physical or sexual abuse in residential schools.

      However, a UBC honours history paper, written by UBC Okanagan stuent Jenna Foster in 2010, did raise the issue of abuse at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Foster's research focused on the period from 1935 to 1965.

      "Many students experience great mistreatment at the school," she wrote. "One particular abuse most hidden at the KIRS was sexual abuse. Sexual abuse at the KIRS could be under recorded due to the shame associated with it and privacy of the students.

      "Male and female students were both subjected to sexual abuse; however, there is more testimonial evidence that female students were more likely to be sexually abused," Foster continued. "Many girls grouped together in order to avoid sexual abuse."  

      Foster's research was highlighted in a UBC news release in 2010.

      "Often it was like I was researching two totally different historical events," she said. "Newspaper articles cast everything in a very positive light, portraying it as an act of benevolence—a gift to the First Nations people. But First Nations people did not see it as a positive experience. Some of their personal testimonies are heart-breaking and were very hard to read. Horrible things happened."

      In this 1986 Prince George Citizen article, O'Grady shows off his honorary degree from UBC.

      O'Grady built many schools

      O'Grady's nickname, the Bulldozer Bishop, came from his desire to expand the Catholic Church's residential school system.

      This was reflected in the following passage in a 2012 Georgia Straight article by Laura Robinson regarding former Vanoc CEO John Furlong's employment at a Catholic day school in Burns Lake.

      "Bishop John Fergus O’Grady, who oversaw the diocese, made sure, during lobbying trips to Ottawa and Victoria, that his 13 schools (he built nine in just four years) received government top-ups for every Native student registered. He and Father Gerard Clenaghan (who regularly flew to Dublin to recruit Frontier Apostles and priests) lived well. O’Grady loved to dress up in buckskin and moccasins and tell stories to big-city North American Christians about 'half-breeds' and 'little Indians' so he could leverage more money for his empire.

      "Added to donations were government payments to the diocese. The more First Nation kids O’Grady registered in Catholic schools, the more the government paid and the more he could feed his diocesan expansionist dreams—but he didn’t waste money on teachers’ salaries. O’Grady beat the cost of hiring trained teachers by inventing in 1956, along with Father John Brayley, the Frontier Apostolate: a labour force of Christian volunteers, often recruited from Ireland, whom he referred to as the 'Catholic peace corps'.

      "The first FAs arrived in 1957; by the time the diocese shut down the program in 1992, more than 4,000 had volunteered from five continents. O’Grady paid them $25 per month plus room and board. Some were qualified teachers; most weren’t. One priest wrote that the Grade 2 class in his parish was taught by a Grade 10 dropout.

      "It was to this that Furlong, at age 18, arrived. He had just left St. Vincent’s Christian Brothers School in Dublin."

      According to the Busy Catholic blog, O'Grady "set up a construction company that included a glass factory, a sash and door factory, a cement block factory, and a trucking and bulldozing firm."

      Beliveau's thesis included detailed information on how O'Grady oversaw the finances of Prince George College, which was founded in 1956.

      "The school lay on a foundation of a carefully constructed ethos, the sacrifices of hundreds of lay volunteers, and the involuntary financial subsidies provided by Aboriginal students from approximately 1960 to 1989," Beliveau wrote.

      Prince George College was later renamed O'Grady Catholic High School. It closed in 2001, "citing both financial difficulties and a lack of local parental support," according to his thesis.

      O'Grady was succeeded as bishop of Prince George by Hubert Patrick O'Connor, who resigned in 1991 after being charged with sexual assault during the 1960s. He was convicted in 1996 on two counts.

      O'Connor was later acquitted of sexual assault on a student while he was principal of the Williams Lake Indian Residential School in the 1960s.