Churches Are Being Burned to the Ground in Canada – Here’s Why
Update (Aug. 6): An additional 50 churches in Canada have been set aflame, vandalized or destroyed. This brings the total number to 57. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, the website for True North Center has been keeping track of each incident, regularly updating with new reports of vandalism and/or arson.
A spree of church arsons have occurred across Canada. In less than two weeks, seven churches have burned following the discovery of over 1,000 unmarked graves on the land of former boarding schools for Indigenous assimilation.
The term “cultural genocide” has been used to describe the treatment of Indigenous children from the 1880s to the 1990s throughout Canada. Over 110 years, roughly 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to boarding schools to be stripped of their language and culture, facing horrific emotional, physical and sexual abuse in the process, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports [via BBC].
At least 130 of these schools -- many run by the Catholic Church -- were open throughout Canada until as late as 1996. It’s estimated that up to 6,000 neglected children died of malnutrition and disease at these residential schools, though the true number may never be known as many records were destroyed.
In late May of this year, the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Just days later, at least 750 additional unmarked graves were found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Additional grave sites continue to be discovered, leading to a nationwide outcry and revitalizing a discussion of the evils of colonialism.
As of this posting, over 1,500 grave sites have been uncovered.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,” remarked Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations. “We are proud people, the only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.”
After the graves were discovered, churches began to burn. On June 21 (National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada), an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was patrolling near Penticton Indian Band land at 1:22 AM when he spotted flames coming from the Sacred Heart Church. Two hours later, police received a call about another fire at St. Gregory’s Church on Osoyoos Indian Band land, roughly 25 miles from Sacred Heart. Both churches were burned to the ground. Investigators described the fires as “suspicious.”
“The Church is gone,” recalled Father Sylvester Obi Ibekwe of the Sacred Heart Church. “All I could see were ashes, ruins, rubbles. How could that be? What happened? What can I do now? I felt helpless and powerless.”
Five days later (June 26), firefighters responded to a fire at St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Upper Similkameen Indian Band land. Less than an hour later, police learned that the Chopaka Catholic Church on Lower Similkameen Indian Band land was in flames. A small fire also damaged St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land. The fire was put out before it could cause severe damage.
On June 28, a Catholic church on Siksika First Nation land near Calgary briefly caught fire, while on June 30, the Roman Catholic St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta burned to the ground. Members of the Alexander First Nation (pictured below), whose relatives attended the Youville Residential School in St. Albert, visited to show solidarity with the Morinville church’s members.
“This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and intergenerational descendants are experiencing, there are supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” Lower Similkameen Indian Band leaders said. “It is not our place to say who to worship and what historical relevance it has to our community members, we are all free to choose and it is our place as a community to support that freedom.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned Canada’s past treatment of its Indigenous peoples. “[The boarding schools] are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”
Trudeau added, "I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”
Canada’s recent church burnings are reminiscent of the 1990s, when between 45 to 60 church fires occurred across Norway. Members of Norway’s black metal scene were largely involved, with Burzum’s Varg Vikernes being found guilty of torching four churches. Members of Emperor and Hades Almighty also served time in prison for church arson.