North America

Churches burned in Canada in response to Indigenous children's deaths

Trudeau asks Pope to apologize for atrocities at former Aboriginal residential schools

3 min
A group of women in the field where 751 unidentified graves were found last week on the grounds of the former Marieval Catholic Indian Residential School in Canada

BarcelonaFour Catholic churches were burned last week in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The police are convinced that the fires were arson and, although the investigation is still open, it is assumed that the fires are related to the recent discovery of hundreds of bodies and unidentified graves that correspond to students of the former schools for indigenous children, run by religious communities (mostly Catholic) and in which the abuse of children was widespread.

The first two fires broke out in the early hours of Monday morning last week, coinciding with Canada's celebration of National Aboriginal Peoples' Day. Within moments of each other, Sacred Heart Church, located just outside the town of Penticton, and St. Gregory's Church, near the town of Oliver, both ignited and were destroyed. The two churches, separated from each other by about 40 kilometres, were made mostly of wood and were built over 100 years ago. Both were located on two Indian reservations and less than 200 kilometres from the city of Kamloops, where a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children was discovered in late May on the grounds of a former Indian residential school run by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969.

Three days after these two fires, the indigenous community of Cowessess announced a new discovery, in this case of 751 graves, in the vicinity of the former Marieval school, in the province of Saskatchewan, which had also been in the hands of the Church, until 1997. This was on Thursday, and early Saturday morning the other two fires that broke out, affecting St. Anne's Church in Hedley and Chopaka: again two wooden churches, separated by about 40 kilometers and located within Indian reservations, in the same area as the first two. The buildings were completely destroyed.

"The investigation into the previous fires and these two new fires is ongoing, with no arrests or charges" RCMP Sgt. Jason Bayda said Saturday. For his part, Keith Crow, head of the Lower Similkameen Indian reserve (where one of the affected temples was located), said he was "angry." "I don't see anything positive coming out of this", he told the CBC.

Petition to the Pope

The discovery, within weeks of each other, of nearly 1,000 victims of the network of Indian residential schools set up by the Canadian government and not fully shut down until 1998, has brought to light one of the darkest episodes in the country's history. Up to 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly sent to one of the 139 centres in this network, which were intended to assimilate them and force them to abandon their language and culture. A 2015 report concluded that these schools had practised "cultural genocide" and noted that many of their students had suffered all kinds of physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse, torture, rape and forced labour. It also documented 4,100 deaths (from diseases such as tuberculosis or influenza, but also from fires, drownings and suicides), although the victims found during the last month were unknown until now and are therefore not part of this count.

The Assembly of First Nations (which brings together Canada's indigenous communities) believes there are still many more unidentified graves to be discovered and has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to open an inquiry to search for all the as-of-yet-unknown victims. Last week Trudeau explained that he had spoken to Pope Francis and expressed to him "how important it would be for him not only to ask for forgiveness, but to ask for forgiveness from Canadian territory for indigenous Canadians". According to the Prime Minister, the leadership of the Church "is very actively involved" in assessing "what steps can be taken". The Canadian government already apologized to indigenous peoples in 2008 for the damage caused by the residential school network.