Police Investigate After Two Catholic Churches Burn on British Columbia Tribal Lands

St. Gregory Mission, Osoyoos Indian Reserve, British Columbia, Canada
St. Gregory Mission, Osoyoos Indian Reserve, British Columbia, Canada (photo: Roman Catholic Parish of Christ the King, Oliver, British Columbia, Canada / Wikimedia Commons)

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Two Catholic churches in the same region of British Columbia burned down in suspicious circumstances early Monday morning. 

“On behalf of The Diocese of Nelson, I am very saddened by the recent fires that destroyed two Catholic churches – Sacred Heart Mission at Penticton Indian Band and St. Gregory Mission at Osoyoos Indian Band – and for the hurt that it has caused,” Bishop Gregory J. Bittman of Nelson said June 23.

“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 said.

The churches, located in the southern Okanagan region of British Columbia, served some indigenous First Nations families, but there are concerns the fires could have been targeted attacks. 

Investigators are considering whether arson caused the attacks. Possible motives could include someone targeting the Indigenous communities, or someone angry at the Catholic Church after the discovery of the undocumented graves of 215 Indigenous children at the grounds of a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel spoke at the burned remains of Sacred Heart Mission Church, Parksville Qualicum Beach News reported.

“This church has been here since 1911. It was a fixture in our community,” he said June 21. “Many in our community were members and involved in services. Some of our elders are attached to the church and have come here today very sad. They are hurting but also they understand.”

“There are some mixed feelings. I understand there is a lot of anger in our community with the discovery of those 215 innocent, poor children’s graves. There is a lot of hurt,” said Gabriel. “But this type of action doesn’t help if in fact it is found to be deliberate.”

At 3:10 a.m. on Monday, over an hour after Sacred Heart Church burned down, Oliver Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were notified that St. Gregory’s Church on Nk’mip Road was on fire. Sacred Heart is located on Penticton Indian Band, while St. Gregory’s is on Osoyoos Indian Band land about a 40-minute drive away. 

The Penticton Indian Band responded in a statement, saying: “We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band ... 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.”

Father Thomas Kakkaniyil, whose parish churches include St. Gregory’s, said that Sunday marked the first Mass at the church in over a year due to the coronavirus epidemic. While the church had provided daytime security for the Mass, there was no security on the premises later that night.

“Somebody from outside came and burned it as I understand it,” Father Kakkaniyil said, according to the Vancouver Sun. “It was done on the Osoyoos First Nation land but not by those people. It was somebody else.”

Gabriel told the New York Times that some are upset at the history of Catholic relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, including the recent discovery at Kamloops; others are also upset that a place of worship and integral part of the community had been burned down. Many families, including his own, held funerals, marriages and baptisms in the church that burned.

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band also addressed the burnings.

“I don’t believe in the church. I don’t believe in those symbols, but some of our people do,” he said.

Sgt. Jason Bayda, media relations officer for the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP, said that if an investigation deems the fires to be arson, the police “will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action.”

“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive,” he said, according to Parksville Qualicum Beach News.

The Penticton Indian Band rejected speculation that the person or persons responsible “had any connection to the Indigenous communities in our region,” adding, “all we can do is to be there for one another in this unbelievably hard time.”

“Please do not approach our Indigenous members and ask how we feel about it,” said Dawn Russell, communications coordinator for the Penticton Indian Band.”

“This is a fresh wound that needs time to heal and contextualize our feelings as we will support the investigative efforts,” she said.

Gabriel said there’s “anger across Canada” in response to the discovered graves. “Myself, I’m very angry. I will do whatever I can in our leadership to make sure people are held accountable for those atrocities. It has to be a criminal investigation because that evil act is criminal. There needs to be a full criminal investigation and people need to be held criminally responsible,” he said.

Father Sylvester Obi Ibekwe, the parish priest of the Catholic parishes of Penticton, including Sacred Heart Mission, had announced a candlelight vigil for June 18 at St. Ann Church, “during which we will honor and pray for the repose of the souls of the 215 children who died in Kamloops and for their families.”

The priest asked people to bring teddy bears or children’s shoes to place on the steps of St. Ann Church or the nearby St. John Vianney Church. 

In a June 1 message, posted on the parish website, he reported waking up one morning to find a sheet spray-painted in orange letters covering the church sign board. Its message said: “Your assets should be seized; have you no response?”

He said he had spoken by phone with a chief at the Penticton Indian Reserve “to express our sadness over the tragic event that happened in Kamloops. We stand in solidarity with all our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

On the weekend of May 22, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The discovery was made with ground-penetrating radar. It is unclear how the children died.

A previous government commission report found that 51 children had died at the school, which operated from 1890 until 1978. The school was established by the federal government and was initially overseen by lay Catholics. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran the school beginning in 1893. In 1969, the government took back control of the school.

The Kamloops school was at one point the largest school in the entire residential school system, which was established in Canada beginning in the 1870s, with many schools operated by Catholic organizations or Protestant denominations. The last operating residential school closed in 1996.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated from 2008 until 2015, reported on a history of abuses in the system and faulted both the churches and the government.

Children from First Nations and other Indigenous communities were separated from their families and placed in the residential schools as a means of forcible assimilation, which was meant to strip them of family and cultural ties. The children suffered from poorly built, poorly heated and unsanitary housing and facilities, which the report attributed largely to government efforts to cut costs. Many students had no access to trained medical staff and faced harsh, often abusive punishments.

An estimated 4,100 to 6,000 First Nations and other Indigenous children died as a result of neglect or abuse in the system, the commission found. In 1945, the death rate for children at residential schools was nearly five times higher than other Canadian schoolchildren. In the 1960s, residential school children suffered a mortality rate double that of their peers, the commission report said.

Pope Francis on June 6 expressed sorrow over the discovery of the unmarked graves at the site of the Kamloops school and prayed for all children who died in the residential school system. 

“These difficult times are a strong call for all to turn away from the colonizing model, and even the ideological colonizations of today, and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect, and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada,” Pope Francis said after the Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square.

The archbishop of Ottawa-Cornwall on June 17 apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in administering the country’s residential school system, and requested a formal apology by Pope Francis, joining calls from Indigenous groups and others.