Canada: two more Catholic churches on First Nations reserves destroyed by fire

Two more Catholic churches on First Nations reserves in western Canada have been destroyed by fires that investigators are once again treating as suspicious.

Over the weekend, crews in southern British Columbia responded to early morning blazes at St Ann’s Church on Upper Similkameen Indian Band land, and the Chopaka Church on the lands of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. Both churches, built from wood and more than 100 years old, were burned to the ground.

The fires come nearly a week after two other churches were destroyed , and amid growing anger over the church’s role in Canada’s campaign to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people.

In recent weeks, the country has been rocked by the discovery of nearly a thousand unmarked graves at the sites of church-run residential schools where Indigenous children were forcibly converted to Christianity and stripped of their original names, customs and language.

The Catholic church has faced calls for greater transparency over its role in the schools – and an apology from the Pope.

After the fires this weekend, the chief and council of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band said in a statement they were “in disbelief” and “angered”.

“[It] will be felt deeply for those that sought comfort and solace in the church.”

But the statement also acknowledged the “the grief and rage” many Indigenous communities were feeling across the country after the discovery of unmarked graves by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia and Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

“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,” the Lower Similkameen said.

On Friday, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 schools, including the two former schools where the graves were found, said it would release all documents in its possession.

Chief Keith Crow of the Lower Similkameen said in an interview with Castanet, that the fires have been “devastating” for Catholics in the community, who recently had a service in the church two weeks ago – but warned communities were “in for more hurt now” as searches for unmarked graves have started in other communities.

“When all the rest of the residential schools start doing testing, there’s just going to be more and more pain that comes out; the 215 [graves found at the first site] was just a start.”

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