UBC reviews award of honorary degree to principal of former Kamloops residential school

The University of British Columbia is now reviewing a decision to grant an honorary degree to a former principal of the Kamloops residential school where the remains of 215 children were found buried.

A joint statement from UBC’s president Santa Ono and deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan Lesley Cormack said the university was aware of “community concerns” regarding an honorary degree given to Bishop John O’Grady in 1986.

“The issues raised are deeply upsetting and we take them seriously,” they said. “UBC’s Senate will be reviewing this matter immediately per our processes and policies relating to honorary degree recipients.”

The move also comes at a time when other honours bestowed on figures from the past are being re-examined in a new light.

In New Westminster, Richard McBride elementary has undergone a re-naming process. The school is being rebuilt, and parent advisory council secretary Cheryl Sluis said they suggested a change due to concerns with the former premier’s views and policies.

“Richard McBride...is very well known for his belief in an all-white BC,” Sluis said. “He was urging the Prime Minister of the day to support legislation banning immigration from Asia. He dispossessed Indigenous folks of reserve land. He opposed suffrage.”

Sluis said after the council sent the request forward to the school district last June, a re-naming committee was formed.

“The PAC was very supportive, we were all on the same page that the name needed to change and that the new school was a very good reason and impetus,” Sluis said. “As we learn and as we grow, we understand that I think we can do better.”

The new name of the school will be Skwo:wech Elementary, a word that means sturgeon in Halq’emeylem, a language spoken by the local Qayqayt First Nation.

“Sturgeon is an ancient fish with a really important significance to this area. It’s a symbol of strength and resiliency,” Sluis said. “We think there’s huge opportunity for students to learn about the land, learn about the river, learn about Indigenous history and culture. And we also think it’s just a really tiny step towards reconciliation.”

Qayqayt First Nations Chief Rhonda Larrabee said she’s very pleased and proud that an Indigenous name was selected.

“The sturgeon is the oldest living fossil fish. They call it a fossil fish because it’s so bony,” she said. “It has survived all those years. And I feel we have done the same.”

Larrabee said the word Skwo:wech comes from a dialect that was spoken by her family members.

“We are descendants of the 400 people who used to live here, and there is no one left. They were moved away, they married into other bands, they went to the States,” she said. “Our family was still living on the land when our land was taken away.”

Larrabee said her mother and other relatives also went to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“This week has been really difficult for our family,” she said. “Hopefully the truth about what really happened is coming out.”

Larrabee said just down the street from the school, at St. Peter’s Cemetary, her grandfather, great-grandparents and other relatives are buried.

“In graves marked ‘For Indians Only’,” she noted. “They must have been members of St. Peter’s church, and they were granted permission to be buried there.”

It’s not the first time a symbol of a controversial historical figure has been changed in the city. In 2019, a statue of Judge Matthew Begbie was removed from outside of the New Westminster law courts. He presided over a trial that led to the wrongful hangings of Indigenous chiefs.

“People have to understand how we’ve been hurt, and how we’ve had to watch people look up to the people who hurt us,” Larrabee said. “I just want that to stop.”