Indigenous Leaders Condemn Recent Vandalism of Churches in Canada

From June 21 through June 26, four Catholic churches located on tribal lands in British Columbia burned to the ground.

One of the five Canadian Catholic churches that burned in a week was Sacred Heart Mission Church in Penticton, British Columbia.
One of the five Canadian Catholic churches that burned in a week was Sacred Heart Mission Church in Penticton, British Columbia. (photo: Diocese of Nelson via CNA)

Indigenous and Catholic leaders have condemned a recent spate of church vandalism in Canada, including the “suspicious” burning of Catholic churches.

In the province of Alberta, a fire was extinguished in the early morning hours of June 28 at the Siksika Nation Catholic Church. The Royal Canadian Mountain Police said that they believe this fire was set deliberately.

From June 21 through June 26, four Catholic churches located on tribal lands in British Columbia burned to the ground. An Anglican church was also found to be on fire on June 26, but the fire was extinguished and caused only minor damage. The Royal Canadian Mountain Police says the fires are “suspicious,” but local leaders believe them to have been intentionally set. 

On June 26, around 4am, historic St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Chuchuwayha reserve in British Columbia was discovered to be on fire. At 4:45am, a Catholic church on Chopaka land in the province was reported to be on fire and also burned down. 

The fires followed the destruction of two other Catholic churches on tribal lands in Canada the previous week. At about 1am on June 21, Sacred Heart Church in Penticton Indian Band in British Columbia was discovered to be on fire; two hours later, a fire was reported at St. Gregory’s Church about 25 miles away in the town of Oliver, on the Osoyoos Indian Band. 

At St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, vandals recently spray painted the words “We were children” and made red handprints in paint on the doors on Thursday, June 24. 

That vandalism was found after an announcement that more than 750 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of a former residential school on Cowessess First Nation land in Saskatchewan. Two people were believed to have vandalized the cathedral. 

The country’s residential school system, and the Catholic Church’s involvement in the system, has come under public scrutiny following the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

On June 24, Cowesses First Nation leaders announced that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Leaders emphasized that the discovery was of unmarked graves and not a “mass grave site.” 

The residential school system was set up by the federal government beginning in the 1870s and was overseen by Catholics and members of Christian denominations. The Catholic Church, or Catholic religious orders, ran more than two-thirds of these schools. First Nations and other Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the schools as a means of forcible assimilation, to strip them of family and cultural ties. The last federally run residential school closed in 1996.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that operated between 2008 and 2015, reported on the history of the school system and the abuses of Indigenous children. The commission found that at least 4,100 children died from “disease or accident” at the schools. 

Since the news of the discoveries, some Catholic churches in Canada have been vandalized or found ablaze. Some First Nations leaders recently called on Catholics to skip Sunday Mass in protest of abuses at the Catholic-run residential schools.

Other leaders have decried the targeting of Catholic churches.

Bishop Gregory Bittman of Nelson said he was “very saddened” at the fires that destroyed Sacred Heart and St. Gregory’s Churches.

“For many years, our priests have been welcomed to minister in these mission churches, and it is our hope that this ministry will continue. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the fires and we are grateful that no one died or was physically injured,” he stated.

The Penticton Indian Band said in a June 21 statement after the two churches burned, “We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band, who also lost their church (Oliver area) 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 statement said that while it is “not our place to say who to worship,” the Sacred Heart church building played an important role in the community. “Since 1911 some of our community’s first memories are of us gathering in that church,” said the statement. 

“We understand the grief and rage felt by our people across the country after the discovery of unmarked graves at Government / Catholic run former residential schools. This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and descendants are experiencing; however, we have supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” they stated.

While the two fires from this past weekend are under investigation, tribal leaders have said they believe they were acts of arson. 

“I wouldn’t call it suspicious. I’d call it what it is: It’s a criminal act; it’s vandalism; it’s arson,” said Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band to Canada’s Global News. Louie also serves as the tribal chair and spokesperson of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, a tribal council in British Columbia.

Louie said that while he “hates the Church with a passion” and is not Catholic, “there’s a lot of people, even within my own family, that believe in that religion.” 

“People are allowed to worship ‘any which way’ they want,” said Louie. 

His comments were echoed by Grand Chief Stewart Philip, of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. He said the fires were “not really surprising” in light of the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools. 

“As time moves forward, there will be further discoveries, the numbers will continue to escalate, and I think we can anticipate more backlash and responses from the Indigenous community at large,” he said to Global News. 

Chief Sandra Larin of the Gitwangak Indian Band in northern British Columbia condemned the attempted arson of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Gitwangak, noting that the church “is in no way affiliated with the Indian residential schools.” 

“That church was built by our ancestors in the late 1800s by the hands of our elders at the time with such a great sense of pride,” said Larin. 

The fire at St. Paul’s was discovered around 1am and damaged the steps of the building. The church building remains standing. 

Other churches or Catholic statues throughout Canada were vandalized with graffiti in recent days. 

On June 26, a statue of St. Pope John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton, Alberta, was vandalized with red spray paint. The vandal or vandals used the paint to make red handprints on the statue.  

Pope St. John Paul II was the last pope to visit Canada. He visited in 1984, 1987 and in 2002 for World Youth Day in Toronto. 

“We are saddened by the vandalism of the statue of St. John Paul II at Holy Rosary Parish,” Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton said in a statement. 

“At a time when our country is acutely aware of the need for reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of this land, it is helpful to recall the words with which Pope John Paul II, during his 1987 visit to Fort Simpson, strongly affirmed the inherent goodness of Indigenous culture and traditions, and expressed solidarity with the First Nations, Metis and Innu Peoples in defense of their rights,” he said. 

In that visit, John Paul II said, in part, “My coming among you looks back to your past in order to proclaim your dignity and support your destiny.”

Archbishop Smith said, “The parishioners of Holy Rosary parish, and the people of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, stand with the Indigenous Peoples in this moment of profound sorrow.”

“With them, we lament the sad legacy of residential schools and look forward to the healing of our relationships. May the Creator help all of us to give expression to our grief in a way that builds up and heals, and place us all on the right path of truth and reconciliation.”

In Mississauga, Ontario, a church was spray painted with anti-Catholic rhetoric on June 24. The graffiti was removed shortly after it was discovered.