Kevin ClarkeJuly 20, 2021
Flames engulf St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, June 30, 2021, in this still image taken form video obtained from social media. The early morning fire destroyed the century-old Catholic church near Edmonton and is being treated as suspicious by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (CNS photo/Diane Burrel, social media via Reuters)

Acts of arson and vandalism primarily aimed at Catholic churches have continued across Canada in July. The latest incident occurred on July 19, when firefighters responded to reports of a fire at 3:30 a.m. at the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey, British Columbia. The church was completely destroyed.

The apparent arson and defacing of church properties came soon after a report confirming the burial sites of at least 215 remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia was released on May 27. Hundreds of other unmarked graves have since been located at a number of former residential schools for Indigenous children.

The rash of recent church fires began in the early morning hours on June 21—National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada. Sacred Heart Church, on Penticton Indian Band land in British Columbia, was destroyed by fire at 1:30 a.m. Less than two hours later, a fire consumed St. Gregory’s Church in Oliver on Osoyoos Indian Band land, also in British Columbia.

By mid-July, more than a dozen Canadian churches had been reported as damaged or destroyed by fire. Many of the churches were wooden-frame and more than 100 years old.

By mid-July, more than a dozen Canadian churches had been reported as damaged or destroyed by fire.

Sources at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not have an official national tally of the church fires and acts of vandalism at church sites, but Canadian media report that dozens of apparent arson fires or significant acts of vandalism have taken place at churches across the country since the Kamloops report was published.

R.C.M.P. sources said there were no plans at this time to form a national task force to investigate the vandalism and apparent arson fires at Catholic, Anglican and other Protestant churches, which have occurred in Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Local R.C.M.P., tribal and metropolitan police will continue individual investigations within their jurisdictions, according to R.C.M.P. spokespersons.

In British Columbia, where at least eight Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have burned, the R.C.M.P. report that they have no suspects and would not say if investigators believed the crimes were related to the continuing discoveries of unmarked graves at the former residential schools, many of which were administered by the Catholic religious orders in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“While we are certainly sensitive to recent events, we will allow the evidence to guide us in each of the investigations and will not speculate as to possible motives,” said Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, a senior media relations officer for the R.C.M.P. in British Columbia.

“Our officers have been working closely with indigenous leaders and local church administration to discuss possible options with respect to crime prevention,” Staff Sgt. Shoihet said, responding to America by email. She said R.C.M.P. officers have been stepping up patrols around local churches.

Fury at the Catholic Church and other Christian churches has been widely expressed in Canada as members of First Nations’ communities locate the remains of schoolchildren.

She added that many of the churches that have been damaged or destroyed by apparent arson fires have been located in small, rural areas. At least one church was no longer in use at the time of its destruction by fire.

“Investigators are sharing information. However, it is too early to say that the fires in different parts of our province are linked to a particular group or person, or to each other,” she said. “Each investigation is being conducted by the police of jurisdiction but being monitored provincially.”

Fury at the Catholic Church and other Christian churches has been widely expressed in Canada as members of First Nations’ communities locate the remains of schoolchildren. Intended to assimilate children of the First Nations of Canada, the residential schools were described in a Truth and Reconcilitation Commission report in 2015 as part of a government-sponsored campaign of “cultural genocide.”

According to the report, more than 4,000 children died while in the custody of the schools, though many believe the true toll has yet to be revealed. The deceased children were typically not returned to their home villages and families for burial but were buried on site. Many of the families never learned what happened to their children.

According to the report, more than 4,000 children died while in the custody of the schools, though many believe the true toll has yet to be revealed.

Close to 1,000 unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan over the last several months. In July, ground-penetrating radar found 182 human remains close to a former residential school in Cranbrook, B.C., 524 miles east of Vancouver.

Just a week earlier, the Cowessess First Nation, located about 85 miles east of the Saskatchewan capital of Regina, said investigators found 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

First Nations leaders have condemned the fires. Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band, who is also tribal chair and spokesman for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, told Global News on June 27 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.

Perry Bellegarde, Assembly of First Nations national chief, said on June 30 the Indigenous way is not to burn things down, but, rather, is about building relationships and coming together.

In a statement released on June 26, the council for the Lower Similkameen Indian Band expressed its “disbelief and anger” over the church fires. “These churches represent places of worship for community members as well as gathering spaces for many in various celebrations or times of loss. It will be felt deeply for those that sought comfort and solace in the Church,” it said in a statement.

The council added, “This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and intergenerational descendants are experiencing, [but] there are supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way.”

Perry Bellegarde, Assembly of First Nations national chief, said on June 30 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 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.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 2 called the church fires and acts of vandalism “unacceptable and wrong.”

Mr. Trudeau added that he understands the anger many people feel toward the federal government and Catholic Church. “It’s real and it is fully understandable given the shameful history we are all [becoming] more aware of,” he said at a news conference. “I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support,” he added.

The Canadian government has apologized for the schools and Mr. Trudeau has called on Pope Francis to make a formal apology.

With reporting from Catholic News Service and The Associated Press.

Listen next: Canada's racial reckoning

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