Assimilation’s legacy: arson attacks hit churches throughout Canada following discoveries of hundreds of unmarked indigenous graves in grounds of schools run by Catholic orders for a century.
More churches across Canada have been destroyed or damaged by fires that police are describing as suspicious or suspected arson.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Morinville, Alberta, investigated a fire at St Jean Baptiste Church, a 100-year-old building that went up in flames early on 30 June.
The fire in Morinville, about 30 kilometres north of Edmonton, is being investigated as arson, Staff Sgt. Tom Kalis told Canadian Broadcast Corp. News.
In a statement, St Paul Bishop Paul Terrio said, “It is with a sad heart that we learn the historic parish church of Morinville burned to the ground early this morning.” He called for “prayers and support for our brothers and sisters of Morinville parish as they grieve the loss of their very beautiful and historic parish church.”
“One of the most recent attacks was at the Vietnamese Alliance Church in Calgary last weekend, which hours earlier held its first full service in over a year.”
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith released a video message on YouTube in which he called the news “heart-rending” and called for prayers for parishioners of St Jean Baptiste.
He also said the archdiocese is working with parish priests and police on arson prevention protocols.
The fires occurred as news has emerged of unmarked graves at former residential schools on First Nations lands.
About 70 per cent of the government schools were run by Catholic religious orders, which worked to assimilate the First Nations students. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission said more than 4,000 students died while attending the residential schools, and many of the families never heard what happened to them.
One of the most recent attacks was at the Vietnamese Alliance Church in Calgary last weekend, which hours earlier held its first full service in over a year, Canadian media outlet CTV reported. Days before, at least 10 churches were damaged across the city in a single night.
“When I look at the building, it’s so sad … That’s where we worship the Lord,” Reverend Mabini Dabalos, the pastor of the House of Prayer Alliance Church, told CTV’s Solarina Ho.
Cheryle O’Sullivan, a residential school survivor, said during a press conference the fires were reminiscent of how Indigenous totem poles and ceremonial houses were burned to the ground when European settlers first came. She and Jenn Allan-Riley, an assistant Pentecostal minister at Living Waters Church, do not believe the fires were set by Indigenous people, because it would cause further harm to Indigenous communities, CTV reported.
Allan-Riley said there are other ways to show support and solidarity, adding that some of these churches are also places of worship for some Indigenous people as well. “Some residential school survivors have remained Catholic, and now have lost their place of worship and comfort,” she told the Canadian media outlet.
Most of the attacks have been directed at Catholic churches, some of which are located on First Nations territories.
First Nations leaders have condemned the fires.
“The Penticton Indian Band condemned the burning of two churches on First Nations Land in the South Okanagan area, saying they and the Osoyoos Indian Band are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences.”
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band, who is also tribal chair and spokesman for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, told Global News on 27 June he has no doubt the fires were intentionally set.
“Obviously, it’s the same group of people. Why did they do it under the cover of darkness? Because it’s a criminal act and they are criminal,” he said.
On 21 June, the Penticton Indian Band condemned the burning of two churches on First Nations Land in the South Okanagan area, saying they and the Osoyoos Indian Band “are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences, as these places of worship provided service to members who sought comfort and solace in the church.”
Perry Bellegarde, Assembly of First Nations national chief, said on 30 June the Indigenous way is not to burn things down, but, rather, is about building relationships and coming together.
Some politicians are also starting to speak out. On Twitter, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the burning of the Morinville church “appears to be another violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community.”
He said the century-old church “was the heart of Morinville and a key part of the history and spiritual life of Alberta’s Francophone community.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned the church fires, saying: “This is not the way to go. The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable. And it must stop.”
RCMP are also investigating two church fires east of Calgary that damaged the Siksika First Nation Catholic Church on 28 June and the Siksika Anglican Church on 29 June. In Nova Scotia, police are describing a fire as “suspicious” after it damaged St Kateri Tekakwitha Church on the Sipekne’katik First Nation grounds northwest of Halifax.
The spate of fires began on 21 June when fires reduced to rubble two historic Catholic churches on First Nations lands in the Okanagan area.
Those fires, which police consider suspicious, destroyed Sacred Heart Mission Church on Penticton Indian Band land and St Gregory Mission Church on Osoyoos Indian Band land.
“Penticton South Okanagan Similkameen RCMP continue investigating June 26 fires that destroyed the century-old St. Ann’s Catholic Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Church.”
Two more Catholic churches on First Nations land were then destroyed by fire, while fire damaged an Anglican church on First Nations land in northern British Columbia. Police are calling all the blazes “suspicious.”
Penticton South Okanagan Similkameen RCMP continue investigating June 26 fires that destroyed the century-old St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Hedley Native Reserve of the Upper Similkameen Band and Our Lady of Lourdes Church on the Chopaka Native Reserve, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, near Osoyoos.
Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow told CBC that many in the community were members at the church and were very upset.
“I’m angry,” he told CBC. “I don’t see any positive coming from this and it’s going to be tough.”
This report includes information reported by Canadian media outlet CTV.