Indigenous Leaders And Residential Schools Survivors Call On Arsonists To Stop Burning Churches

Canada -

Indigenous Leaders And Residential Schools Survivors Call On Arsonists To Stop Burning Churches

At least 45 Christian churches have been burnt down or vandalized in Canada by unknown arsonists. 


The church burnings come after the discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous children near First Nation boarding schools were first discovered at the end of May. Since then, more than 1,000 graves have been found near Catholic Church operated residential schools. After the graves were found, about 12 churches were burned throughout the country between June 21 and July 9. Most of the fires occurred in and around Penticton, British Columbia.

It is widely believed that the churches are being burnt down due to the mass graves and the Catholic Church's dismissive attitude. It is unknown who or why the churches are being burnt down. While some speculate the fires are being caused by First Nations members others speculate, especially within Indigenous communities, that it could be outsiders setting ablaze to Churches in misplaced solidarity which is hurting First Nations' communities. The Church burnings have been widely condemned by affected communities, government officials, and even residential school survivors.


Indigenous community response

Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors have called for the unknown arsonists to stop burning down churches. Jenn Allan-Riley, an assistant Pentecostal minister at Living Waters Church and the daughter of a residential school survivor, said in a press conference, “Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us indigenous people. As I said we do not destroy people's places of worship... We're concerned about the burning and defacing of churches bringing more strife, depression and anxiety to those already in pain and mourning." She also said the church arsons were fuelling further division between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, and that burning the churches “is not our native way”, a sentiment that many other members of the First Nations have shared.


Outsiders burning down churches

Cherylle O'Sullivan, a survivor of a residential school, said the fires were like when Indigenous totem poles went up in flames when European settlers first arrived. She and Allan-Riley are not convinced that the fires were set by Indigenous people, since this would cause further harm to Indigenous communities. 


More harm than help

Allan-Riley said there are other ways to show support and solidarity, “Some residential school survivors have remained Catholic, and now have lost their place of worship and comfort” Most of the attacks have been directed at Catholic churches, some of which are located on First Nations territories. Within the indigenous areas, the churches are intertwined less with the Vatican and belong more to the community. The churches burnt down offered a wide range of services outside of worship, that include addiction assistance, children's programs, and doubled as recreational and community centers. 

In addition, Cherylle O'Sullivan is worried that more churches could be set ablaze, which could destroy records related to residential schools.


Government response

The RCMP estimates that there have been about 45 acts of arson or vandalism to Canadian Christian churches since June. No arrests or suspects have been announced. Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated his condemnation on Monday of the fires and said vandalism, arson, and destruction of public property were not the way forward as a country. “I fully understand the anger and the grief that so many people are feeling... I have repeatedly over the past weeks and indeed months, condemned the attacks on religious institutions and over the past weeks condemned the burning of Catholic churches. That is simply not right. It is a shame and, indeed, it is something that is going to prevent people who will seek solace in times of grief from being able to visit their own places of worship.” 


Possible motive

An increasing number of suspicious church fires and vandalism across Canada began after 215 unmarked graves were found in Kamloops, B.C., followed by 751 found near the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Last week, 182 more were discovered near Cranbrook, B.C. close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School. There is no doubt that similar discoveries will be made at dozens of former residential school sites across Canada, the majority of which were run by the Catholic Church.


What were Indian Residential Schools?

In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of at least 130 boarding schools set up to educate and subjugate Indigenous peoples. The residential school network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by various churches. The Catholic Church has historically been heinous towards vulnerable people worldwide, has carried out gynocides and involved itself in multiple genocides, and has centuries of instances of abuse against women and children. 

Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their home and families to erase their traditions and cultures and to ultimately assimilate them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates more than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s to 1996. Children at residential schools died at a far higher rate than those in the general population. In nearly a third of the deaths, the name of the child wasn’t recorded; nearly half did not list a cause of death. When the commission concluded in 2015, it had determined that at least 3,200 children died in residential schools. Since 2015, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has added 980 names to its memorial register which steadily keeps growing.


A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.




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