While it remains unclear what caused the fires, they are believed to be linked to the recent discovery of mass graves containing hundreds of human remains near Catholic-run residential schools for First Nations children.
On Saturday morning, police and firefighters were alerted to a fire at St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Upper Similkameen Indian Band land. Less than an hour later, Royal Canadian Mounted Police were dispatched to respond to a fire at the Chopaka Catholic Church located on land belonging to the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, reports CNN.
The fires were the latest in what could be a swelling wave of arson and vandalism targeting the religious institutions.
On June 21, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, police also responded to two fires in the southern Okanagan region and on Osoyoos Indian Band land 25 miles away.
Also this past weekend, a statue of the late Pope John Paul II at a Catholic church in Edmonton was splattered with red paint and red handprints. A Saskatoon cathedral was also tagged last Thursday with red handprints and the words “we were children” painted on the doors.
On the same day that that incident occurred, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced its discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school. The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area. Children from First Nations in southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba were forced to go to the schools.
The discovery came just few weeks after the grim discovery of 215 Indigenous children’s bodied by the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation in a mass grave at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Colombia.
While Indigenous groups have clamored for a nationwide search for more graves, the response to the fires has been mixed.
In a statement, the Lower Similkameen Indian Band acknowledged the deep feelings of grief and rage being felt by people across Indian country in the wake of the discoveries.
“This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and intergenerational descendants are experiencing, there are supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” the LSIB said in a statement.
About 150,000 First Nations children were forcibly separated from their families and communities and forced to attend the religious schools which were established in the 19th century to assimilate Indigenous children into the Anglo settler-colonial culture of Canada.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has confirmed that large amounts of Indigenous children fled such residential schools or died there, their whereabouts unknown. Former students have also testified to the horrific sexual, mental and physical abuse they suffered while enrolled at the schools. Myriad students died from preventable diseases that rapidly spread in unsanitary conditions, as well as in accidents and fires. Others disappeared when trying to escape. The Commission has denounced the schools for institutionalizing child neglect and for being organs of “cultural genocide.”
Indigenous groups and Canadian politicians are also demanding an apology from the Catholic Church – specifically Pope Francis. The event could take place by year’s end, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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