BY GERRY CHIDIAC
Lessons in Learning
The city of Prince George recently decided to change the name of O’Grady Road 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 a humble man. 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 was a person who recognized the giftedness in others and encouraged them to use their gifts to do good in the world.
It is interesting 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 away to the residential school in Lejac.
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 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 (a school established and run by O’Grady) in the 1970s, decades before this was done elsewhere.
O’Grady clearly did not 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 could not 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 Fergus O’Grady during his lifetime, doing a little is not good enough, especially when we knowingly ignore abuses that are taking place. Any violation of human rights, especially the rights of a child, is a crime against humanity.
We are right to critique the actions of O’Grady, but it is even more important that we hold ourselves to the same high standard. Each of us is responsible for establishing our own legacy.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac