Indigenous leaders condemn church fires, one blames ‘rez punks’ for arson


Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie has a love-hate relationship with Catholicism. In his youth, he attended church against his will, recalling a period in his life he’d soon like to forget.

“We were heathens, right?” he told CBC News from the steps of St. Gregory’s Church. “We were savages. We had to come in here and have the white man save our souls. That’s what we were taught.”

On June 21, 2021, someone torched the place of worship — the second such church to perish that day on an Indian Reservation. Hours earlier, the Sacred Heart Church on the Penticton Indian Band also burned to the ground.

No charges have ever been laid in those respective fires, but Louie has his suspicion into who may have been responsible.

“I was upset that some rez punks did arson,” he said. “I don’t think white people came here and burned this down.”

According to a CBC News Analysis, 24 of 33 church fires since May 2021 were deliberately set. Only two have been ruled an accident while seven others remain under investigation.

After the reported discovery of alleged remains belonging to 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., nationwide outrage ensued, and the alleged graves propelled the vandalism and burning of over 60 churches that summer.

An updated incident map from True North showed at least 96 churches had been destroyed, burned, or vandalized in Canada since the spring of 2021.

As of writing, no remains have been unearthed at the Kamloops site, with investigations to take upwards of two decades to complete — yet churches continue to fall to suspected arson.

Last December 15, Wood Buffalo police responded to a devastating church fire in Janvier, Alberta, a hamlet adjacent to Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, reported the Canadian PressAlberta RCMP are investigating the fire for foul play and have not yet determined the cause.

The fire follows a separate RCMP probe into two fires at Barrhead churches earlier last December. Investigators believe those blazes were intentionally set.

“These church buildings belong to the First Nations band that they are on,” said Bishop Gary Franken of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Paul.

Chipewyan Prairie First Nation councillor Shane Janvier expressed sorrow, calling it a popular site of community celebrations, baptisms, weddings and funerals. He attended his first communion at the old church.

“Enough’s enough. We’ve got to look out for one another as a community,” Janvier said in a video posted to social media.

“If we’re going to make statements that this is our land, we’re going to fight for this land, then we’d better damn well learn to respect this land,” he added.

At the outset, many Indigenous leaders quickly condemned the ‘unresolved anger’ that perspired into unwarranted, unmitigated destruction.

“To burn things down is not our way,” said then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde. “Our way is to build relationships and come together.”

“The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop,” added Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

About half the fires involved Catholic churches, but included other Christian sects, according to CBC NewsFourteen fires took place on First Nation reserves while 13 others happened in rural towns or hamlets. Just nine have led to arrests. 

Alberta RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff, said the agency has yet to determine a clear motivation to link the fires, as the perpetrators “come from all walks of life.”

Other cases that resulted in charges remain before the courts, including two men alleged to have burned down the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.

Two other men in their 50s are before the courts for a fire that destroyed St. Bernard’s church near the Kapawe’no First Nation in Alberta. 

Both cases go to trial this spring, reported CBC News.

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