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Any violation of human rights is a crime against humanity

Residential schools

Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Prince George, B.C., officials recently decided to change the name of O’Grady Road, named after a former Catholic bishop of Prince George, to Dakelh Ti, meaning First Nation Road in the language of the Lheidli T’enneh.

I knew Bishop Fergus O’Grady fairly well and I don’t think anything would have made him happier. The decisions to change the name of College Road to O’Grady Road and the name of Prince George College to O’Grady Catholic High School in the late 1980s were made after he’d retired as bishop and largely against his will.

To his last day in 1998, O’Grady loved being among young people, and they loved being in his presence. I remember joking with him at a basketball game, saying, “Bishop, all those people down there have your name on their shirts.” He surprised me when he replied in a serious voice, “That was not my idea.”

Despite all the accolades he received during his lifetime, O’Grady was humble. He prided himself, for example, on driving the oldest car in the diocese, unlike other Catholic bishops around the world who often live in scandalous opulence. O’Grady recognized the natural ability in others and encouraged them to use their gifts to do good in the world.

It’s instructive to read the accounts of Dakelh elders like Mary John, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 91. In her biography Stoney Creek Woman, John notes that the parents in her community always wanted a local school built so they wouldn’t have to send their children to the residential school in Lejac.

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I remember O’Grady telling me that when he first became bishop in 1956, he asked the people of the diocese what they wanted. They told him they wanted schools, so he found a way to build and staff them.

John points out that while the teachers at Lejac tried to take away her language and culture when she was a child, she was hired to teach Carrier language and culture at St. Joseph’s School in Vanderhoof, B.C. in the 1970s, decades before this was done elsewhere. St. Joseph’s was established and run by O’Grady in the 1970s.

Despite this, the words of Lheidli T’enneh Chief Dolleen Logan ring true: “… Bishop O’Grady… played a key role in the administration of residential schools in B.C. while deaths and abuse of children occurred.”

O’Grady clearly didn’t do enough. But what were things like elsewhere in Canada at this time?

I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between O’Grady and other Canadian leaders when I moved to Montreal in 1990.

During the Oka Crisis that summer, the non-Indigenous community tried to expropriate Mohawk territory to expand a golf course. This was despite the presence of a large Catholic monastery in the town of Oka and the fact that the vast majority of non-Indigenous residents in Quebec were baptized Catholics. I saw very little Catholic presence at pro-Mohawk demonstrations and I heard no calls to respect the wishes of the Mohawk issued by the official Catholic church in Quebec.

I honestly couldn’t have seen O’Grady or the local Catholic clergy failing to take a stand had this happened in northern British Columbia.

What lesson does this provide for us in 2022?

Though many lauded the actions of O’Grady during his lifetime, doing a little isn’t good enough, especially when we knowingly ignore abuses taking place. Any violation of human rights, especially the rights of a child, is a crime against humanity.

We’re right to critique the actions of O’Grady, but it’s even more important that we hold ourselves to the same high standard. Each of us is responsible for establishing our legacy.

Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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