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Opinion: O'Grady's giving legacy

After bodies in unmarked graves were discovered at the Kamloops residential school in May, I was really surprised at the reaction of some people against Bishop O'Grady who loved the Indigenous so much.
The Prince George Citizen featured Bishop Fergus O'Grady when he retired in 1986

After bodies in unmarked graves were discovered at the Kamloops residential school in May, I was really surprised at the reaction of some people against Bishop O'Grady who loved the Indigenous so much.

Up until he died in 1998, the Indigenous people seemed to love him as well. There were at least two busloads of Indigenous people from reserves across the diocese at his funeral which was held in the Prince George Civic Centre because of the great number of people who wanted to attend. Bishop O'Grady told me that these people would call him at all hours to talk to him, even in the middle of the night and he would always listen to them. They loved to pay him impromptu visits.

The Indigenous gave Bishop O’Grady many gifts - lovely articles of clothing and symbolic artifacts, beautiful beading and other artwork. You may have seen him in the beaded moose hide vestment that they made for him and that he cherished.

Bishop O'Grady knew all of the Indigenous students at Prince George College by name and, for years, would have his meals with them in the school cafeteria every day. In the evenings, he would visit their residences and spend time with them, listening to them.

Bishop O’Grady asked Elders to teach language and culture classes at the school. Mabel George, who had been a student in Lejac residential school, loved to teach the students and shared with me some of her good memories of Lejac.

Bishop O’Grady’s goal in building Prince George College was to give his beloved Indigenous students the education they needed to obtain jobs. He also hoped some would continue on to university and included Grade 13 (first year university) in the school, which wasn’t needed when the College of New Caledonia was build a few years later.

At this point, we don't know if any of the bodies buried on the Kamloops site were buried during Bishop O'Grady's time as principal. The school in Kamloops was there for 88 years (built in 1890 and closed in 1978) and markers for graves - wooden crosses with names carved on them as they would have used for most of those years - probably wouldn't survive too long. Our garden gate is rotting out already!

There must have been many deaths over the years from the prevalent childhood diseases, including tuberculosis, cholera, scarlet fever, and typhoid (1893) etc. and especially during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

In her book Cross in the Wilderness, historian Kay Cronin tells of a smallpox epidemic in 1862, that “swept as far north as Stuart Lake... At first the Indians buried their dead near the camp fires (in frost free ground)… but as the death-toll mounted and got out of control the survivors simply piled up the corpses in mounds, covering them with branches of trees. Or else they had to leave them to rot where they fell,..”

Cronin also tells of the 1918 flu epidemic where: “As they were unable to dig graves, they were buried in shallow trenches, four or five every evening.” At Stuart Lake “I found fourteen people dead in the village. Trenches were dug and all buried in one day. Others had died in their camping ground and since nobody was strong enough to bury them, they were eaten by dogs.”

In 1918, at a residential school in Ft. St. James that was later moved to Lejac, the flu epidemic “hit with a vengeance. Overnight, the entire staff and all but two of the children were stricken... Between the five (who managed to stay on their feet and help the others) they cared for 50 bed-ridden patients…. Of the population of 400 at Ft. St. James, 78 died within two months, three of them being children at the school.”

I wonder how many graves from 75 or 100 or 130 years ago in towns and villages and reserves across Canada could be found without markers if dug up today. Past epidemics were much more devastating that today’s pandemic!

Indigenous people might want to ask their Elders about their family histories. Parents would know if their children died of an infectious disease while at a residential school. They loved their children and would have been told when that happened and of course they would remember!

I think it is very sad that children were taken from their parents to boarding schools, although boarding schools were very popular in England and some other countries at the time - and are still available in some areas. Parents have the God given right and responsibility to raise and educate their children.

The government built the residential schools, made the rules, and had the churches run them. In past, in public schools, the government had "truant officers" who would go to homes and see why the kids weren't in school if they missed school. In some cases, they would call the police if they didn't get a satisfactory reason for the absence. I don't know when they quit doing that in Canada, but I remember as a child hearing about truant officers. Straps were commonly used as punishment for misdeeds of children in public schools. I had an elementary public school teacher who gave the strap on the hand for each spelling mistake a child made!

Kay Cronin tells how the Indigenous on Vancouver Island were upset with the government because they had asked them for schools for their kids and the government was so slow getting around to building them. Little did they know of the horrific genocidal measures that would be put in place by the Canadian Government. As Jo-Anne Berezanski, an Elder with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation stated in her recent PG Citizen article: “We can’t change the past but we can change what we do today and it is overdue for government to stop making First Nation responsible for the damage created by government.” And I would add, it is time to stop making the Catholic Church responsible as well.

As for Bishop O’Grady’s honorary degree from UBC, the fact that UBC is considering revoking it says more about UBC than about Bishop O’Grady!

It is hard to witness all the grief and sadness of Indigenous people, but it is also very sad to see a man who dearly loved those people being so severely criticized and blamed without reliable evidence.

Diane Fuller

Prince George

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