Two Catholic churches on indigenous land in western Canada burnt to the ground on Saturday, less than a week after two other nearby churches were set ablaze.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating the fires. RCMP Sergeant Jason Bayda said, “The investigations into the previous fires and these two new fires are ongoing with no arrests or charges.”
On Monday, firefighters were able to put out a fire at a church in the neighbouring province of Alberta before significant damage was done. Authorities say the fire was deliberately set.
Saturday’s fires destroyed St Ann’s Church and the Chopaka Church in the Similkameen region of British Columbia, about 240 kilometers east of Vancouver. Chief Keith Crow of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band said the fires have had a big impact on the native community. “We still have our Christian and Catholic followers, and they just had service a couple weeks ago at that church. They were very upset on Monday when the two churches were burnt in Osoyoos and Penticton. Now that these ones have burnt, it’s devastating to them.”
Speaking with local news outlets, Chief Crow linked the fires to ongoing historical investigations into Canada’s residential school system, which more than 150,000 native children forced into boarding schools in order to assimilate them into Canadian culture. In May of this year, 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of a formal residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia, about 200 km north of the burnt churches. Just last week, a search of another residential school in the province of Saskatchewan revealed more than 700 unmarked graves.
“We’re in for more hurt now,” said Chief Crow. “Look at what happened in Saskatchewan, Kamloops, and Williams Lake is doing their testing right now. When all the rest of the residential schools start doing testing, there’s just going to be more and more pain that comes out; the 215 was just a start.”
The compulsory schools, which operated from the mid-nineteenth century into the late-twentieth century, were funded by the Canadian government, but run by Christian churches of various denominations, with the Catholic Church given charge of more than half of the schools. The facilities for the schools were poorly funded and often operated under squalid conditions, leading to numerous health issues. As the schools were designed to assimilate indigenous children, students were often forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture, a situation described by a 2008 investigative commission as “cultural genocide.” Physical and sexual abuse of students also occurred at the schools.
The most recent discoveries have provoked more urgent calls for full transparency from the organizations involved in the running of residential schools. Although Catholic dioceses and religious orders have promised to release records, indigenous leaders have expressed frustration at delays in making records available.
Following last weeks discovery in Saskatchewan, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the Marieval Residential School where the remains were discovered, have made a formal commitment to release all the records in their possession, saying, “We will disclose and not block access to historical documents maintained by us and in our possession, as is possible within the law, to establish the truth of what happened in residential schools.” Father Ken Thorson, the provincial of OMI Lacombe Canada, says he hopes the work of transferring documents will begin soon.
Indigenous leaders have demanded that Pope Francis come to Canada to make a formal apology for the involvement of the Church in the residential school system. Although a papal journey to Canada is not expected in the near future, the Canadian bishops are organizing for a delegation of indigenous leaders, residential school survivors, and young people to meet with Pope Francis in Rome. Although the visit has been pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Church leaders say they hope the meeting will take place before the end of 2021.
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