Canadian Indigenous leaders call for end of targeting of churches

St. Jean Baptiste church St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville, Alberta, before it burned down on June 30, 2021. | Archdiocese of Edmonton

Canadian Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors have called for suspected arson attacks on churches to stop. 

Since June 21, five Catholic churches in Canada have burned completely to the ground, while other Catholic and Christian churches have suffered fire damage or have been vandalized with graffiti. Most of the church fires have occurred on tribal land. 

The most recent church fires occurred this week in the provinces of Alberta and Ontario. The House of Prayer Alliance Church, a predominantly Vietnamese church in Calgary, was discovered burning, while Johnsfield Baptist church on Six Nations land in Ontario was also discovered on fire early Monday morning. The fires were extinguished without significant damage to either church, the CBC reported; police believed both fires to be intentionally set.

Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in northwestern Alberta was targeted with Molotov cocktails on Saturday, Global News reported on Sunday. A fire in the church was extinguished. Police suspected arson at Trinity United church in Spruceland, British Columbia, over the weekend, according to the Prince George Citizen.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police continues to investigate numerous “suspicious” fires and acts of vandalism at churches throughout Canada, but it is unclear if all the fires are connected. Four of the destroyed churches were located in British Columbia; two churches were discovered burning in the early morning hours of June 21, and two more on the morning of June 26. 

The fires have occurred after recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools for First Nations and other Indigenous children. The schools were run by Catholics and members of Christian denominations.

Following the reports of church vandalism and churches being discovered on fire, some Indigenous leaders and survivors of these residential schools have called for attacks on churches to stop. One residential school survivor, Cheryle Delores Gunargi O’Sullivan, said in a press conference on Monday that the alleged arson is “villainizing us, when really we are the victims.” 

“It’s not going to help us to build relationships or rebuild relationships with religion, with the government, or even with the RCMP,” she said. “It’s counterproductive. And it really needs to stop so we can focus on the children that have yet to be found.”

Jenn Allan-Riley, a descendant of residential school survivors and an assistant Pentecostal minister, said in a press conference that acts of destruction are “not in solidarity with us Indigenous people.” 

“This is not our native way,” she said. 

“We do not hate people. We do not spread hate,” she said. “We love people. We do not destroy other people’s (houses of worship.)”

The residential school system was set up by the Canadian federal government beginning in the 1870s, and the schools themselves were overseen by Catholics and members of Christian denominations. The Catholic Church, or Catholic religious orders, ran more than two-thirds of these schools at one point. The last federally-run residential school closed in 1996. 

First Nations and other Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the schools as a means of forcible assimilation, to strip them of family and cultural ties. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated between 2008 and 2015, reported on the history of the school system and determined the schools were part of Canada’s Aboriginal policy of “cultural genocide.” The commission found that at least 4,100 children died from “disease or accident” at the schools. 

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.

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“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.”

Bishop Gregory J Bittman of Nelson celebrated Mass on Lower Similkameen Indian Band Lands on Sunday, July 4. 

“Despite the losses they have endured, despite the forces that seek to divide us, we met as one people, united in Faith,” he said in a statement. “I ask for continued prayers for all of indigenous brothers and sisters, especially for those who have lost their mission churches, including the most recent in Hedley and Chopaka."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, spoke on the church arsons on July 2, saying that he did not think they were helpful actions towards a wounded community. 

"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 said.


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