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Church fires are latest chapter in unmarked grave scandal

Churches are burning across western Canada in a spate of fires which local authorities are treating as suspicious, and which one local premier has identified as possible hate crime.

The fires, which have damaged or destroyed at least seven churches in recent days, follow the still ongoing confirmation of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children on the sites of residential schools operated by the Catholic Church throughout the twentieth century.

St Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, after a June 30 fire.Credit: Iris Kirschner/The Pillar

No direct link has been proven between the discovery of the unmarked graves and the church burnings, but the fires have mostly occurred on tribal lands, amid fierce criticism of the Catholic Church from many Canadians, and renewed expressions of pain by First Nations peoples over systematic injustices, both historic and recent.

As the situation continues to unfold, The Pillar brings you a brief guide to what has happened, and who has said what so far.


The residential schools were part of a set of policies which amounted to “cultural genocide,” according to an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 2015 final report on the residential school system. Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, and the schools began to close mostly in the 1960s, but some stayed open for decades longer.

Between 1863 and 1996, more than 150,000 children attended residential schools, most of which were administered by Catholic, Anglican, and other religious groups. Until 1948, attendance for many First Nations children was mandatory.

According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, approximately 16 out of 61 Roman Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the residential school system, as were about 36 out of over 100 Catholic religious orders in Canada. By some estimates, as many as 70% of the roughly 130 residential schools were connected to the Catholic Church.

The discovery of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves of children on the school sites has provoked national and international scandal and outrage, with many tribal leaders calling for the Church to accept responsibility for participating in the systematic erasure of First Nations culture and people, and some Canadian media and politicians offering ongoing criticism of the Catholic Church.

The graves

Over their 140 years of operation, at least 3,213 children died at residential schools, and possibly many more. In many cases the families of deceased students were given little notification about the circumstances of their death or the place of the burial.

Communicable disease, especially tuberculosis, were a major cause of death among residential school students. Death rates at the schools were much higher than death rates of other Canadian children for most of the residential school period, especially before the advent of penicillin, as were death rates in First Nations communities overall.

While the Canadian government funded the operation of residential schools, it did not adequately fund care of bodies, burial or transportation expenses, or transportation of deceased students to their homes after death. Schools in some cases pushed the Canadian government to assume responsibility for such costs, but in few cases were they successful.

At some residential schools, following the government policy that students be buried in the places where they died, students were buried in existing Church cemeteries. Burial markers were often simple and inexpensive, as there was no support to assume the cost. At other residential schools, graveyards were established quickly and without formal documentation; few such graveyards had funds set aside for their perpetual care.

Many graveyards, therefore, were not maintained after residential schools closed or became overgrown, and because of insufficient documentation, their locations were not marked or well noted in the period after schools closed. Other cemeteries were maintained, and costs assumed by local governments, but that happened only sporadically.

The present project has been to use ground radar technology, in conjunction with building plans and site maps, to identify or confirm the location of previously unmarked graves and cemeteries. That project is expected to be followed by efforts to mark individual graves, and to continue compiling definitive lists of the deceased.

The Pillar reports what tribal leaders and bishops have in mind.


On May 27, tribal leaders from the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc people announced that 215 unmarked burial sites had been discovered on the site of the Kamloops Indian residential school in British Columbia. The discovery included the remains of children as young as three. The school was established in 1890 and was run by the Catholic church. It closed in 1978.

On June 21, the Cowessess First Nation announced that at least 751 unmarked graves have been identified on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Also on June 21, two Catholic churches in British Columbia burned to the ground: Sacred Heart Mission Church and St. Gregory Mission Church. Both churches stood on tribal land are were about 40 minutes apart from each other.

On June 26, two more Catholic churches on tribal lands burned down: St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Hedley Native Reserve and Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

On the same day, a fire broke out at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land but was extinguished before it caused major damage.

On June 28, Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced they were investigating a fire which had been set overnight at the Siksika First Nation Catholic Church, but which had been put out before causing severe damage.

On June 30, in the early morning hours, St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville, just outside of Edmonton, burned to the ground.

Also on that day, the Lower Kootenay Band tribe announced that the remains of 182 people had been found on the site of St Eugene’s Mission residential school, also in British Columbia.

Who said what?

Following the burning of St. Jean Baptiste, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Wednesday that “these attacks targeting Christian churches are attempts to destroy the spiritual sites that are important to people of faith across Alberta, including many Indigenous people.”

Kenney called the attacks a “possible hate crime” and said they were unacceptable.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in response to the fires that while he understood the pain of indigenous communities following the revelations, “this is not the way to go.”

“The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable. And it must stop,” he said.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met with a group of former residential school students and tribal leaders at the Vatican, and offered an apology for abuse which took place at Catholic-run residential schools.

After the meeting, a Vatican statement reported that: “Given the suffering that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report called for an apology from the pope on Canadian soil for the Church’s role in the residential school system and other forms of institutional cooperation with the Canadian government in the oppression of indigenous people. That call has been repeated by several tribal leaders in recent weeks, and by senior Canadian politicians.

Earlier this week, Trudeau said that he had "spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”

In his June 6 Angelus address, Pope Francis said he had followed the “shocking discovery” of the unmarked grave sites with “sorrow.”

“I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news,” said Francis. “This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past... These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and also from the ideological colonizations of the present, and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”

“We commend to the Lord the souls of all the children who have died in the Canadian residential schools, and we pray for the grief-stricken indigenous families and communities of Canada,” said the pope.

On June 10, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in which they “pledged true and deep commitment to renewing and strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples across the land.”

“The recent discovery of children’s remains at a burial site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia remind us of a tragic legacy still felt today,” the bishops said.

On Tuesday, the Canadian bishops announced that Pope Francis would meet with three delegations of indiginous peoples representing the survivors of the residential school system in December of this year.

“Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous Peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonization and the role of the Church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma,” the bishops said.