Churches burned down as anger over ‘cultural genocide’ of indigenous children sweeps Canada

It was around 7am when Father Obi Ibekwe got a call informing him that his church, the Sacred Heart in southern British Columbia, was on fire.

By the time he arrived, the clapboard structure, which had stood on Indigenous Penticton Indian Band lands for a century, had already burned to the ground. 

As he sifted through the rubble and ruins the question he kept asking himself was: "How could this have happened – and what would come next?"

The answer, it seemed, was more devastation.

A fire at the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band lands is seen burning early on June 21.

Credit: Aileen Macasaet Maningas/Facebook

Two hours after the Sacred Heart’s fire was reported on June 21, St Gregory’s, just 30 miles down the road and also on Indigenous lands, had gone up in flames. A third, St Ann’s, followed suit.

Fire chiefs said the timing of the blazes, which began on National Indigenous People’s Day, did not seem coincidental.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the suspected arson attacks came after more than 1,000 unmarked graves believed to hold Indigenous children were discovered at three former schools operated by the Catholic Church.

There were 751 found in western Saskatchewan, and 215 and 182 near two separate schools in British Columbia.

Flames engulf yet another Catholic church, St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, Alberta on June 30

Credit: Diane Burrel/Reuters

Firefighters inspect the damage at the Roman Catholic St. Jean Baptiste church

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Since then, nearly two dozen more churches across Canada, many of which stood on Indigenous lands, have been anonymously vandalised or reduced to cinders.

Just this week, police responded to yet another "suspicious" blaze at a church in Surrey, British Columbia.

By the time the fire was extinguished, St. George Coptic Orthodox Church was almost entirely demolished and only a single wall was left standing. No one was reported to have been injured. 

An aerial view of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church is seen after it was destroyed by fire

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People mourn outside the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church

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These incidents are being seen as part of a wider reckoning in Canada over one of its darkest chapters: a century-long forced assimilation programme during which around 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to government-funded residential schools.

Thousands of children are thought to have died from abuse or disease in the schools, which operated until the late 1990s. Many of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Canada, which was set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to investigate the schools, described the practices as “cultural genocide.”

Initially, it was estimated that 4,100 children disappeared from the schools.

Murray Sinclair, an indigenous former judge who led the commission, estimated that the true number could exceed 10,000.

Two women wearing shirts memorializing their mother, aunt and uncle who attended residential school, at the Roman Catholic St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, Alberta

Credit: Anadolu Agency

"There is a deep sense of sadness in the hands of our people," Father Obi told The Sunday Telegraph.

He said he did not want to speculate on the cause of the fire at the Sacred Heart, but acknowledged recent events had produced a palpable sense of "anger towards the church."

"We wake up from time to time and hear that another church has burned down.”

He insisted that while "anger makes a lot of noise", it did not reflect how the majority of the country felt.

Graffiti on the walls of Saint Bonaventure Catholic Church in Calgary

Credit: Anadolu Agency

Another bit of graffiti at Saint Bonaventure Catholic Church

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Both Indigenous people and politicians have condemned the spate of vandalism.

“I understand the anger that’s out there against the federal government, against institutions like the Catholic Church,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“But I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning.”

Some, such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, went further, labelling the spate of fires “a violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community".

Cynthia Stirbys, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor who has researched the residential schools, agreed the recent fires did not reflect the values of Indigenous communities.

"We don’t really don’t know who did that," she said.

A photo dated circa 1910 shows the Marieval Mission Church and its congregation standing next to the Marieval Indian Residential School in what is now Saskatchewan, Canada

Credit: PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES OF SASKATCHEWAN/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Students write on a chalkboard at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta in the 1910s.

Credit: United Church of Canada Archives via AP

But Dr Stirbys, who grew up learning of the horrors her family endured in residential schools, said many Indigenous people were also frustrated that their experiences were only just being acknowledged.

"This amnesia of Canada is making people really upset and there’s a lot of anger," she said.

The recent developments have underscored the complexity of the Church’s history for many Indigenous people. 

Father Obi noted that the Sacred Heart Church, built entirely from wood by the Penticton Indian Band community in 1911, had offered a spiritual home to many living on the First Nation reserve.

Children's shoes are laid in front of the Catholic St-Franics Xavier Mission in memory of the 215 children buried in an unmarked mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kahnawake reserve.

Credit: Andre Pichette/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For Carrie Allison, an elder from the Upper Similkameen Indian Band in southern British Columbia, the destruction of her local church St Ann’s has only served to deepen her trauma.

As a survivor of the former Kamloops Indian residential school, where the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves in May, the 90-year-old said she had found joy in St Ann’s.

"The church meant so much to all of us," Ms Allison said, including all their ancestors who helped to build it.

They wanted to see their hard work "cherished, not burn to the ground," she added.

But for Dr Stirbys, recovering from the trauma of the past can only be achieved when the Catholic Church is forthcoming about its role in the assimilation programme.

"The church should apologise – because they never have," she said.

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