Churches on indigenous Canadian land set ablaze after 751 graves discovered near residential school

Churches within Canada’s indigenous communities have been burnt within a week, following the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school within the province of Saskatchewan, The Washington Post reported.

Four of the churches have been burned down

According to CBCfour of the churches on the following Indian reserves in the province of British Columbia have been burned down:

Chopaka church at the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) reserve, on June 26,

St. Ann’s church at the Upper Similkameen Indian Band (USIB) reserve, also on the same day,

Sacred Heart church at Penticton Indian Band reserve, on June 21, and

St. Gregory’s Church at Osoyoos Indian Band reserve, also on June 21.

Separately, an Anglican church within the Gitwangak First Nation reserve in northwestern British Columbia suffered minimal damage on June 26 when the fire was spotted by one of its members.

A fire was also reported at another Catholic church within the Siksika First Nation reserve, Alberta province, on Monday, June 28, according to local Canadian media 660 CityNews. Investigations are ongoing.

Indigenous chiefs and elders condemn church burnings

Various indigenous leaders have since condemned the church burnings.

In a press release on June 28, the USIB Chief and Council said that they were “very saddened” by the losses of the two historical churches in the Lower and Upper Similkameen.

The statement added:

“Like LSIB, we understand the anger surrounding Residential Schools across our country, but we implore all of you to reach out for supports and help each other to express your anger and emotions in a different way. Putting our lands, wildlife, and members at risk is not the way.”

The USIB’s chief, Bonnie Jacobsen, further highlighted that many of their members were also Catholics and Christians.

He was echoed by LSIB’s chief, Keith Crow, who was quoted by CBC as saying:

“I’m angry. I don’t see any positive coming from this and it’s going to be tough. It’s devastating. You know, we do have a devout Catholic following here in our community. I really don’t want to see any separations in a community.”

Meanwhile, Grand Chief and President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Stewart Philips, said there were “mixed emotions” among Penticton Indian Band members about the Catholic Church.

Philip noted that there was an “intense hatred” for the Catholic Church with regard to the residential school experience.

What is the significance of the graves near the residential school?

According to the BBCthe Marieval Indian Residential school, where the 751 graves were found, was one of over 130 boarding schools established by the Canadian government and run by religious authorities for the purpose of assimilating indigenous youth, during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The school is located within the lands of the Cowessess First Nation.

It is estimated that around 70 per cent of such schools were run by the Catholic Church, with this school having been operated by the church from 1899 to 1997.

It is unclear if all of the remains are linked to the school, and are children, as they are unmarked.

However, the discovery of the graves still carries significance as it came in the wake of another discovery in May where the remains of 215 children were found at another school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

And on June 30, the Lower Kootenay Band indigenous community said that it had made a new discovery of 182 children’s graves at another school near Cranbrook, British Columbia, Aljazeera reported.

The deceased children are estimated to be between the ages of seven and 15 in this particular instance.

Schools have been labelled as “cultural genocide” with thousands of children dying

The BBC reported that between 1838 and 1998, over 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and placed into these schools across the country.

Around 6,000 children are estimated to have died in such schools, partly from poor sanitary and housing conditions.

The children were also subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as punishment for speaking their language or expressing their culture.

In 2015, a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the death rate for children at such schools was higher than that of Canadian soldiers in World War II, The Guardian reported.

The report further noted that some of the schools had only graveyards and no playgrounds.

As such, the commission has since labelled the policy behind such schools as “cultural genocide” in action.

It highlighted:

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.

The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”

Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau calls for Pope Francis to apologise

In the meantime, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has said that Pope Francis should come to Canada to apologise on behalf of the Catholic Church for its role in operating the schools, CBS News reported.

Trudeau himself apologised on June 25, with Canadian media Global News quoting him as saying:

“Specifically to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future,” he said.

That means recognizing the harms, the impacts, the inter-generational trauma, the cycles of challenges that far too many Indigenous peoples face in this country because of actions that the federal government and other partners deliberately and willingly undertook.”

Pope to meet with indigenous survivors within Vatican City in December 2021

APNews reported that Pope Francis has since agreed to meet with the indigenous survivors of the residential schools in December 2021, within the Vatican City.

According to a statement by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Pope will meet members of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit separately during their visit from December 17 to December 20.

He will also have a final audience with all three groups on December 20.

The statement added:

“Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous Peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonisation and the role of the Church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”

It is unclear if this will include an apology.

Top photo by Aileen Macasaet Maningas from Penticton :: locals helping locals Facebook