More Churches Burned in Canada After Latest Grave Discovery at Residential School

The incidents occur amid ongoing reports of unmarked graves of Indigenous peoples, mostly children, found at former residential school sites.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 28, 2021, 5:58pm
Pope John Paul II statue and burned Catholic Church in B.C.
Pope John Paul II statue in Alberta (left) and the burning remains of a Catholic church in Chopaka, B.C. (right). Photos by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Drinkwater and THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Lower Similkameen Chief Keith Crow

About a week after two Catholic churches burned to the ground on Indigenous land in British Columbia, at least three more churches—not all Catholic—have reportedly been found on fire, while other religious sites have been defaced.

The incidents occur amid new and ongoing reports of more than 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous peoples, mostly children, found at former residential school sites across Canada. 

On Saturday, St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Upper Similkameen Indian Band territory was destroyed in a fire, as was the Chopaka Catholic Church on Lower Similkameen Indian Band lands. Both are located in southern B.C.

Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow told the Vancouver Sun that the fires are suspicious and “possibly” linked to two previous ones. Last week, two centuries-old Catholic churches, Sacred Heart Church and nearby St. Gregory’s Church, were destroyed. 

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Yet another church was found ablaze on Saturday—this time, an old Anglican church. RCMP in northern B.C. responded to reports of a fire in Gitwangak, located between Terrace and New Hazelton, at 1:15 a.m. on June 26. According to Global News, the fire lit up the entranceway of St. Paul’s Anglican Church and the community deemed it intentional. 

RCMP are investigating connections between all the fires. 

Meanwhile, parishioners in Edmonton, Alberta, found the statue of Pope John Paul II defaced in front of the northside’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Sunday. The monument and the sidewalk surrounding it were covered in blood red hand and foot prints, while several stuffed animals were placed at the statue’s base. Two churches were similarly vandalized in Saskatchewan, with the doors of St. Paul's Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon splattered with the similar red handprints and the quote, “We were children.” Red and orange paint was poured on the Sisters Legacy statue in Regina.

“There is a tremendous amount of anger and grief that people are experiencing right now that they’ve been holding for a long time. It’s not surprising to me that from time to time the anger and the grief takes expression in these kinds of acts,” Father Ken Thorson, the head of  Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate is a Catholic order that ran several residential schools, including two that have recently made the news for having hundreds of unmarked graves on site.

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Last month, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School—painful news that resulted in more Indigenous communities searching former residential schools in their territories. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have already announced unmarked graves, and last week, Cowessess First Nation confirmed that the remains of an estimated 751 Indigenous people are buried at Marieval Indian Residential School. It’s the largest residential school burial site found so far, but more sites like it are expected.  

The news supports what Indigenous folks, residential school survivors, and their families have been saying about the residential school system for decades, and it seems a lot of non-Indigenous folks are starting to learn about Canada’s horrific history and ongoing colonialism—and the Catholic Church’s role in it. Just last week, several lifelong Catholics told VICE World News that they are considering leaving the Church. 

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“I’m done,” one lifelong Catholic said. “They have one job to do and that’s to be good people—people that would protect, people that you count on... And, you know, there are pedophiles, rapists and murderers. I can’t stand for that anymore.” 

Residential schools were run by the Canadian government and churches to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Sweeping sexual and physical abuses were common and thousands of children died. According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about 4,100 students were killed at residential schools, but that number is likely to climb. Experts think it’s closer to 15,000. 

More than half of residential schools were run by Catholics, who are yet to apologize for their role. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to apologize to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, but the request was denied. This year, the pope expressed his sorrow, but again did not apologize, despite mounting pressures to do so. 

Many are saying it’s time for the Catholic Church (and Canada) to be tried for crimes against humanity or genocide.

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.