Two more Catholic churches have been set ablaze in indigenous communities in western Canada, in what was described by authorities as “suspicious” incidents following the grim discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former church-run indigenous residential schools.
Federal police said St. Ann's Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band and the Chopaka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band in the Canadian province of British Columbia were set on fire less than an hour apart early on Saturday.
“Both churches have been destroyed,” Sergeant Jason Bayda of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.
Authorities consider the two fires “suspicious, and are looking to determine any possible connection to the church fires in both Penticton and Oliver on June 21, 2021,” he said.
The fires at Sacred Heart Church in Penticton and St. Gregory's Church in Oliver — both in British Columbia's South Okanagan region and about 50 kilometers away — are still under investigation.
The destruction of the four churches comes as Canada's indigenous people are in a state of shock over the discovery of the remains of 215 schoolchildren at a former residential school in Kamloops last month, and 751 more unmarked graves at another school in Marieval this week.
The educational facilities were part of a cross-Canada network of 139 residential schools created to forcibly assimilate indigenous children by removing them from their homes and communities, and forbidding them from speaking their native languages or performing cultural practices.
Pope should apologize on Canadian soil: Trudeau
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on Friday for the “harmful” government policy of indigenous assimilation in church-run schools across the country, and called on Pope Francis to come to Canada and do the same.
“I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness, Pope Francis, to impress upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil,” Trudeau said. “I know that the Catholic church leadership is looking and very actively engaged in what next steps can be taken.”
Earlier in the month, the pontiff expressed his pain over the discoveries and pressed both religious and political authorities to shed light on “this sad affair,” but he stopped short of offering a formal apology.
The Canadian premier had earlier described the discovery as heartbreaking and said the church must take responsibility for its role in the schools.
Indigenous leaders have called the residential schools a system of “cultural genocide.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s report in 2015 determined that at least 3,200 Indigenous children died while attending residential schools, and that the general practice was “not to send the bodies of students who died at schools to their home communities.”
Canada’s residential school system forcibly separated more than 150,000 First Nations children from their families between 1831 and 1996. Many of the children separated from their homes by the church’s school system were subjected to abuse, rape, and malnutrition. In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized.