A year after Black Lives Matter and antifa riots ravaged cities across the United States, vandals and arsonists are targeting churches in Canada. The attacks follow news of more than 1,000 children placed in unmarked graves at Indian residential schools. Canada forced Native Americans (referred to as “First Nations” in Canada) to attend the boarding schools in an act that activists decry as a form of cultural genocide.
On June 21, arsonists targeted two Roman Catholic churches in tribal territory in British Columbia (B.C.): Sacred Heart Mission Church of Penticton, and St. Gregory Mission Church on Osoyoos land. On June 26, arsonists burned two more Catholic churches in B.C. to the ground. Authorities also found that St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land in B.C. had been set on fire on June 26, but firefighters extinguished the blaze, mostly saving the church, Catholic News Agency reported. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said all the fires were “suspicious” and local leaders attributed them to arson.
On June 27, arsonists lit a fire at Siksika First Nation Catholic Church, but firefighters put out the blaze before it caused severe damage. On June 30, arsonists burned St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville to the ground. On the night of July 1, two fires destroyed one Anglican church — the aforementioned St. Paul’s Anglican Church — and damaged part of another church in Tofino.
Vandals have not just attacked churches. They also toppled and decapitated the statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the designers of the residential school system. Publications at Ryerson University have moved to strike the figure’s name from their publications. Protesters covered the statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and another originator of the residential school system, with black fabric.
On July 1, Canada Day, vandals tore down statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. Police reported that vandals attacked 10 churches in Calgary, Alberta, on July 1. Some of the vandals wrote the number 215 on some of the churches, referring to the number of unmarked graves found at the first site.
Between 1863 and 1996, Canadian authorities sent more than 150,000 First Nations children to residential schools administered by Catholic, Anglican, or other Christian churches. Until 1948, the government required most First Nations children to attend. Many of the children died from illnesses and malnourishment and the government of Canada, which funded the schools, did not fund adequate burial procedures. The schools also apparently failed to notify parents of their children’s deaths.
The government established the schools to assimilate the children, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a Canadian government-funded commission that forms part of a legal settlement to address the wrongs of the system.
The TRC reported thousands of cases of abuse and mistreatment against the First Nations children, but outrage reached a fever pitch after First Nations authorities discovered the remains of 215 children buried near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. on May 28, 2021. A team from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Simon Fraser University announced that they had found 104 potential graves at Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba on June 4.
Cowessess First Nation announced that the tribe had found as many as 751 unmarked graves near the site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan on June 25. The Ktunaxa First Nation reported discovering 182 unmarked grave sites near St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in B.C. on June 30.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops reported that approximately 16 out of 61 Roman Catholic dioceses in Canada associated with the residential school system, as did about 36 out of over 100 Catholic religious orders in the country. As many as 70 percent of the roughly 130 residential schools had connections to the Catholic Church.
Yet not all of the churches targeted in the recent arsons have connections to the Catholic Church or to the residential schools. On July 4, the House of Prayer Alliance Church in Calgary, Alberta, burned to the ground in a suspected arson. The church, owned by the Calgary Vietnamese Alliance, had finally reopened its doors on Sunday after a full year of lockdown to fight COVID-19.
“We are Vietnamese refugees here,” Pastor Thai Nguyen told CTV News. “If anybody do this so they should know that we [are] victims too, before we came here to find a new life.”
“Another appalling arson attack on an Alberta Church. The Alliance House of Prayer has congregations of Vietnamese & Filipino Canadians. Many of the Vietnamese came here as refugees,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wrote on Twitter. “These acts of hatred targeting the diverse Christian community must end.”
The horrific scandal of First Nations children abused and buried in unmarked graves is a dark stain on Canada’s history, but this outrage does not justify the arsonists who burn churches to the ground.
Many First Nations leaders have rightly condemned the church arsons.
“Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us indigenous people. As I said we do not destroy people’s places of worship,” Jenn Allan-Riley, an assistant Pentecostal minister at Living Waters Church whose mother attended a residential school, said in a press conference on Monday, CTV News reported. “We’re concerned about the burning and defacing of churches bringing more strife, depression and anxiety to those already in pain and mourning.”
Cheryle O’Sullivan, who herself was forced to attend a residential school, compared the church arsons to the European settlers’ burning of First Nations totem poles and ceremonial houses.
Acts of violence and destruction will not reverse the horrific scandal of unmarked graves at residential schools, any more than the Black Lives Matter and antifa riots brought justice for George Floyd.