Catholic Churches Destroyed On Indigenous Land In Canada

Several Catholic churches have been destroyed by fire on Indigenous land in Canada in recent weeks. Two reported fires occurred on National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, on land belonging to the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Land Bands. Another two fires were both set on June 26th in the Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands (CNN). Although authorities have yet to determine what the motive for the fires was, it comes in the wake of a continuous discovery of unmarked graves on residential school lands (Washington Post). These residential schools which forced Indigenous children to undergo acculturation processes were funded by Catholic groups in the region (CNN). While the culprits cannot be confirmed, many speculate that the church burnings were a response to the recent discoveries and their Catholic roots.

Greg Gabriel, the chief of the Penticton Indian Band, stressed that although the motive for the fires is still a mystery, “there’s a lot of anger and hurt in our community, from the residential school survivors and elders. [….] A lot of families, including my own, had events like funerals, marriages and baptisms in that church. Elders were attached to the church and some feel hurt by its loss,” (NY Times). The Lower Similkameen Indian Band’s chief Keith Crow similarly explained that “this is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and intergenerational descendants are experiencing,” (LoudWire). Emma Anderson, a religious studies professor at the University of Ottawa remarked that “despite its historic blunders and sins, the church has been a historic mainstay in the lives of some Indigenous people,” (NY Times). 

For part of the community, the destruction of churches exacerbates the pain felt by the Indigenous community in the wake of the discovery of approximately 1,000 unmarked graves. Everyone is affected by the brutal and tragic discovery, but the churches in the region have a different meaning for everyone. For some, it signifies the forced acculturation of their ancestors, and for others, it symbolizes comfort and community. Even more confusingly, it may represent both sentiments for the survivors of residential schools. As a result, it is not solely up to individuals in the community to decide if these churches belong on their land or not. It’s possible that the community could decide altogether if the organized removal of these churches is necessary, rather than committing vandalism that some view as deeply disrespectful and hurtful. Regardless, the deep hurt felt by the community after the discovery cannot be glossed over. The intergenerational pain felt is beyond what many can begin to imagine. 

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that around 6,000 to 150,000 children died at residential schools in Canada that operated as recently as 1996 (Washington Post). Upwards of 150,000 First Nations children were sent to these schools in order to undergo forced acculturation processes that sought to erode Indigenous culture. In May, a team of scientists found 215 unmarked graves on land where the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia was. A couple of weeks later in June, more than 750 unmarked graves were discovered in Cowessess First Nation lands in Saskatchewan at the Marieval Indian School (NBC). The two schools, among others, were operated and funded by the two Catholic religious groups, the Oblates (CNN). The groups have since released a statement apologizing for the harm caused by their organization’s past actions. Prime Minister Trudeau has also called upon the Pope to issue a formal apology while on Canadian soil, and said he understands the anger felt towards the Federal Government and the Catholic Church (Washington Post). The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops set up a meeting between indigenous groups, including survivors of these residential schools, and the pope to discuss the Catholic Church’s role in the harsh effects of colonization (CNN). 

The burnings of churches on Indigenous land are not the only acts of vandalism suspected to be a response to the recent discoveries. As Prime Minister Trudeau explained, there is also anger felt towards the Federal Government for their part in funding and operating the residential schools. The statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature were tied with ropes and pulled down. The Queen Victoria statue was covered in red paint, and the demonstrators also placed hundreds of small shoes behind it to represent the children who died at the residential schools (Associated Press). 

Resorting to acts of destruction signifies the ways in which the Indigenous community’s grievances have been largely unaddressed. Measures like meeting with the Pope to discuss the ways the Catholic Church has directly harmed their communities provides the opportunity to be heard and acknowledged. Ultimately, reconciliation is necessary to heal from the brutal past. 

Rachel Simpson