More unmarked graves discovered in Canada as church vandalism continues

Canadian_flag_Credit_Jiri_Flogel_Shutterstock_CNA.jpg The flag of Canada. Credit: Jiri Flogel/Shutterstock.

The discovery of 182 additional undocumented graves outside a former residential school in Canada has heightened calls to boycott Canada Day, the nation’s independence day celebrated on July 1. 

The most recent discovery was achieved through the use of ground-penetrating radar outside St. Eugene’s school near Cranbrook, British Columbia. The local indigenous nation, the Lower Kootenay Band, has said it is too early to say if the graves, which were originally marked with wooden crosses, belonged to former students of the school.

A reckoning over Canada’s residential schools began this spring when at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the remains of 215 indigenous children were discovered on the weekend of May 22 with ground-penetrating radar. It remains unclear when or how the children died.

Bishop Gregory Bittman of Nelson, which includes the former St. Eugene’s school, has not yet commented specifically on Wednesday’s discovery, but issued a statement upon the discovery in Kamloops. 

“Our faith teaches us the importance of respecting and honouring all those who have gone before us,” Bittman wrote May 31.

“Please pray for the repose of the souls of these children, for comfort and consolation for those who mourn their loss, and for spiritual healing and peace in the hearts of all those affected.”

The residential school system was set up by the Canadian federal government, beginning in the 1870s, as a means of forcibly assimilating indigenous children and stripping them of familial and cultural ties. 

The Catholic Church or Catholics oversaw more than two-thirds of the schools. The last remaining federally-run residential school closed in 1996.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Canadian body set up to investigate abuses in the schools, at least 4,100 children died from “disease or accident” at the schools. The locations of many cemeteries could fade from memory over time due to lack of regulation and documentation, and individual grave markers could have been moved or succumbed to the elements.

More than 750 unmarked graves were discovered June 24 at the site of a former residential school on Cowessess First Nation land in Saskatchewan. Leaders emphasized that the discovery was of unmarked graves, and not a “mass grave site.” 

Vandalism of churches has continued apace in Canada since the discoveries, likely due to anger at the Church for its role in the residential school system. 

From June 21 through June 26, four Catholic churches located on tribal lands in British Columbia burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. An Anglican church was also found to be on fire on June 26, but the fire was extinguished and caused only minor damage. 

At 3 a.m. on Wednesday, June 30, firefighters responded to a fire at St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, Alberta. The church was over 100 years old and the fire consumed it. 

Also on Wednesday, a fire was reported and extinguished before it caused damage to St. Kateri Tekakwitha church on Sipekne'katik First Nation land in Nova Scotia. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating both incidents. 

On June 24 in Mississauga, Ontario, a church was spray painted with anti-Catholic rhetoric. The graffiti was removed shortly after it was discovered.  

And on June 26, a statue of St. John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton was vandalized with red spray paint. The vandal or vandals used the paint to make red handprints on the statue. 

Earlier this week, the number “1321”— a possible reference to the number of unmarked graves discovered at that point— was painted in large red letters on an outer wall of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Denver. The graffiti was promptly removed, and CNA could not confirm that the Denver vandalism was connected to the revelations in Canada. 

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The initial discovery of the graves in May led leaders of the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council to plan a visit to the Vatican, with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to request a formal papal apology for the Church’s role in the residential school system.

Canadian bishops have recently issued apologies for the Church’s role in the residential school system, including Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver. In 2014, bishops of the province of Alberta apologized to indigenous communities.

Some Canadian bishops, along with indigenous leaders, will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in December 2021, according to the Canadian bishops' conference.

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