Two Catholic churches on First Nations reserves in western Canada have been destroyed by overnight fires that investigators are treating as suspicious.
Early Monday morning, fires consumed both the Sacred Heart church, on territory of the Penticton Indian Band and the St Gregory’s church, on the territory of the Osoyoos Indian Band. Both churches, constructed largely of wood, were more than a century old.
The fires, which occurred hours apart, happened on National Indigenous Peoples Day – and come nearly a month after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found what they believe are the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.
“We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band … are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences as these places of worship provided service to members who sought comfort and solace in the church,” the Penticton Indian Band said in a statement. “Please do not approach our Indigenous members and ask how we feel about it. This is a fresh wound that needs time to heal and contextualize our feelings as we will support the investigative efforts.”
Police have not said the fires were arson, but a local fire chief said his team found liquid accelerant outside the charred remains of St Gregory’s.
The church burnings come amid growing calls for the Catholic church to formally apologize for their role in Canada’s residential school system, including from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.
For over a century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend Christian schools as part of a broader strategy to assimilate them into Canadian society. The schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant, were run by a number of churches and funded by the federal government.
Justin Trudeau has expressed frustration that Pope Francis has declined to offer an apology for the Catholic church’s role in residential schools.
“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the position that the Catholic church has taken now and over the past many years,” the prime minister said earlier this month. “We expect the church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this and be there to help with the grieving and healing, including with records.”
According to historical records, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran half of Canada’s residential schools, including the one in Kamloops – the largest in the country. The Oblates have so far refused to release their records to help identify the remains found.
Police have not drawn any conclusions and want to “allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action”, RCMP sergeant Jason Bayda, said in a statement. “We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”