Two Canadian Churches reduced to ashes

Two Canadian Churches reduced to ashes

Two Catholic churches attended by Canada’s First Nations peoples were destroyed by what police suspect was arson this week.

Both churches were on land belonging to First Nations communities in British Columbia: Sacred Heart on Penticton Indian Band Land and St. Gregory’s on Osoyoos Band Land, near Oliver.

They were reduced to ashes early Monday morning with the help of a “liquid accelerant” according to firefighters, in what are being described as “suspicious” fires by local police.

“On June 21, 2021 at 1:22 a.m., a Penticton RCMP officer was on patrol when he observed fire coming from the Sacred Heart Church on Green Mountain Road. By the time the officer arrived on scene the church was fully engulfed,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stated in a June 22 press release.

“At 3:10, Oliver RCMP were notified that St. Gregory’s Church on Ni’mip road was burning.”

The two churches were approximately 34.5 miles apart.

“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” stated Sgt Jason Bayda, Media Relations Officer for the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP.

“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”

The reluctance to designate the church-burnings hate crimes did not sit well with one Canadian priest who works with First Nations people.

“Why it is when two Catholic churches are torched (as they just were), and it hits the news, the words are ‘police are investigating the cause...’ but [when] a mosque or synagogue is burned, it’s a hate crime?” he asked, and then provided an answer: “It’s because there’s an unspoken prejudice that it’s okay that Catholics suffer.”

People might not understand, however, that the Catholics who suffer when their churches are burned down on First Nations land are First Nations’ people themselves.

“The arsonist destroyed all the religious history of the community,” the priest continued. 

“Marriages; baptisms; first communions. [Arsonists] hurt many indigenous who are happy to practise their Catholic faith.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that the communities involved are angry.

“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," the Penticton Indian Band said in a statement and asked media not to approach either group for comments.

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

The CBC reported also that Father Obi Ibekwe, the Nigerian pastor of the Catholic parishes of Penticton, indicated that the Sacred Heart community will not comment on the fire until the RCMP has completed its investigation. 

According to the CBC report, Bob Graham, chief of Oliver’s volunteer fire department in Oliver, said they believe “by looking at the scene and the surroundings” that a form of “liquid accelerant” was used and that the fire was “set.”

Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole said that fires were “disturbing.”

“Disturbing news in British Columbia today. My thoughts are with the Catholic community as this incident continues to be investigated. Violent and destructive attacks against any faith group in Canada are completely unacceptable,” O’Toole tweeted.

The fires were set following intense media coverage of the May discovery of unmarked graves at the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 until 1969, and was closed by the federal government in 1977.

Although the residential school system was founded by the secular government in the 19th century, and then woefully underfunded by the state, and although different religious groups were asked to run the schools, the Catholic Church has borne the brunt of recent criticism.