No Reconciliation Without Truth: A Reckoning for University Honouring Practices

On June 3, 2021, the following letter was signed by 46 faculty and staff members of the Peter A. Allard School of Law and sent to the Senates (Vancouver and Okanagan) and Board of Governors of the University of British Columbia. The letter calls on these bodies to promptly and without unnecessary debate revoke an honourary degree granted by UBC to Bishop O’Grady, the former Principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. There is no debate to be had here – revocation is one necessary, though not sufficient, step toward acknowledging the truth about Canada’s Residential Schools legacy and the complicity of universities and other institutions in that legacy and settler colonialism more broadly. Acknowledging this truth is also one part of the larger work of law faculties in response to the Calls to Action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Acknowledgement, though, must also be accompanied by action and reparation, especially from an institution that continues to profit from the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. More is needed, including a systematic review of honourary degree awards and naming practices from all post-graduate institutions in Canada. But we hope the small steps called for in this letter can be taken immediately in response to the confirmation of what survivors have long been saying about the genocidal history of residential schools in Canada. Information about how to support Tḱemlúps te Secwepemc, including through monetary donations, can be found here. [Introduction by Kristen Thomasen and Debra Parkes]

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To the Senates and Board of Governors of the University of British Columbia:

As you know, in 1986 – the same year when some institutions began to acknowledge their complicity in the colonialism of residential schools[1] – the University of British Columbia granted Bishop John Fergus O’Grady an honorary doctor of laws.[2] O’Grady was Principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1939 to 1952.[3] On May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the identification of remains of 215 children, some as young as three years of age, on the site of what used to be Canada’s largest residential school.[4] This announcement follows many decades of survivors, First Nations and community members seeking answers and accountability for the disappearances of their loved ones. Many other children remain missing and unaccounted for: to date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified names or information about at least 4,100 children who died in Canada’s residential schools.[5]

We write as faculty and staff of the Peter A. Allard School of Law, with a mind to our obligations under the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, and as gatekeepers to a profession that has been, and continues to be, instrumental in upholding colonial genocide in this country. We call on the UBC Vancouver and Okanagan Senates to revoke this honorary degree immediately.

Revocation, while an important symbolic gesture, is insufficient if not backed by concrete action. We also call on the Senates to accompany this gesture with an acknowledgement of UBC’s complicity, as well as material reparations. We call on UBC to contribute material support for efforts in B.C. to locate further unmarked gravesites, as well as to maintain the sites of former residential schools, as Indigenous leaders and experts are calling for. 

We hope these immediate steps can be taken without debate or delay.

We further call on the UBC Senates and Board of Governors to embark on a systematic review of past honorary degrees and naming practices with a view to redressing the ongoing harms of UBC’s role in upholding colonial genocide.


[1] E.g. the United Church of Canada initially apologized to First Nations for its role in residential schools  in 1986: https://united-church.ca/sites/default/files/apologies-response-crest.pdf

[2] UBC Archive: https://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/hdcites/hdcites8.html; Prince George newspaper on O’Grady’s retirement discussing the award: http://pgnewspapers.pgpl.ca/fedora/repository/pgc:1986-10-14-09

[3] Charlie Smith, “UBC will review honorary degree granted to former Catholic Bishop John Fergus O’Grady” The Georgia Straight (31 May 2021): https://www.straight.com/news/ubc-will-review-honorary-degree-granted-to-former-catholic-bishop-john-fergus-ogrady

[4] Media release: https://tkemlups.ca/wp-content/uploads/05-May-27-2021-TteS-MEDIA-RELEASE.pdf

[5] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Missing Children Project:  http://www.trc.ca/events-and-projects/missing-children-project.html; The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials” (Volume 4):  http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Volume_4_Missing_Children_English_Web.pdf