In recent months, hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former residential schools, through ground-penetrating radar.
In May, the graves of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. On June 24, Cowessess First Nation leaders announced that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan; leaders emphasized that the discovery was of unmarked graves, and was not a “mass grave site.”
Then on June 30, Lower Kootenay First Nation leaders announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former St. Eugene’s residential school near Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Allan-Riley noted that many First Nations people and residential school survivors are still practicing Catholics, and have now lost their places of worship during an already troubling time.
“The burning and defacing of churches bring more strife, depression [and] anxiety to those already in pain and mourning. Former survivors of Canada residential schools are triggered by the sight of burning and deface churches,” said Allan-Riley.
“It also brings former traumatic feelings of violence and threats to their lives. This is also putting further division between Canada’s Indigenous people and the rest of Canadian society.”
Neither Allan-Riley nor O’Sullivan believe that the fires were set by Indigenous people. They delivered their comments after Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey condemned any violence against churches, in an emotional video released on July 1. Noskey explained that while the Canadian government’s actions against First Nations children in the residential school system amounted to genocide, destruction is not the answer.
He said that “we are asking you as members, as the Nehiyaw and the Dene, and the communities, in your communities, where you have these churches, that we’re asking you to refrain from vigilante actions against the church buildings.” The Nehiyaw are also known as the Cree people.
Noskey said in the video that he understood the anger felt towards the Church.
“Again, there are 11 schools, and I know adjacent to your reserves there are schools, and you want to,” said Noskey. “You know, I even feel that way many times. We want to do something, right now, right away.”
“But not with a heart of anger or agitation,” he said. “Because in that, we will miss out on doing it right.”
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Other tribal elders have characterized the church burnings as acts of disrespect towards their ancestors, who once built the now-destroyed churches.
Carrie Allison, a 90-year-old elder of the Upper Similkameen Indian Band (tribe) and survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said that she was “very disappointed” with the recent destruction of St. Ann’s Church in Hedley, British Columbia.
In a June interview with Coast Mountain News, Allison explained that the church was built by members of the tribe more than a century ago. “There have been many happy and joyful times with marriages from all over the world in that church, and for the couple that was to marry there next week, I am devastated,” she said.
The person who set the fire “must have no feelings or respect for elders or ancestors,” she said.
The Upper Similkameen Indian Band said in a June 28 statement that they “are in disbelief of the complete disregard for our elders and ancestors,” regarding recent fires that destroyed Saint Ann’s Church and Chopaka Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Upper and Lower Similkameen tribal lands. They said that they would be “fully cooperating and helping with this investigation.”
“Like (the Lower Similkameen Indian Band), we understand the anger surrounding residential schools across our country, but we implore all of you to reach out for support and help each other to express your anger and emotions in a different way,” they said in a statement. “Putting our lands, wildlife, and members at risk is not the way.”