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Fire destroys churches in Canada Indigenous reserves

Farah Bahgat
June 27, 2021

The buildings burned to the ground days after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Indigenous residential schools run by the Catholic Church.

Firefighters' jackets hang on the fence of the burned-out remnants of Sacred Heart Church on the Penticton Indian Reserve.
Last week, two Roman Catholic churches on First Nations reserves in British Columbia were burned downImage: James Miller/AP/picture alliance

Two Catholic churches in Indigenous communities in western Canada have gone up in flames overnight, local media reported Saturday.

Two similar fires in British Columbia were reported less than a week ago, following the grim discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Catholic-run Indigenous residential schools. 

What we know about the fires

Responders reported that the St. Ann's Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band was set on fire.

Shortly after, the Chopaka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band was also set ablaze, broadcaster CTV reported, citing federal police.

The two churches were burned to the ground, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada's national police force.

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," RCMP Sergeant Jason Bayda said in a statement.

The Penticton and Oliver fires — about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away — are still under investigation, according to the AFP news agency. 

RCMP had issued a statement after last week's fire, stressing that investigators "won't speculate on a motive" despite the sensitivity to recent events. 

What are the Indigenous mass grave discoveries? 

Using ground-penetrating radar mapping, over 1,000 unmarked graves were discovered at former Indigenous residential schools in Canada earlier this month. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for Canada's policy of Indigenous assimilation that applied at 139 of these schools across the country until the 1990s. 

In such schools, children were separated from their families and taught to follow the traditions of the European colonizers, including adopting Christianity. Violence and sexual abuse were widespread.

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the inhumane conditions.

AFP contributed to this report.