Canadian church arson linked to indigenous mass graves scandal – media
A spate of fires at Christian churches in Canada could be linked to the discovery of suspected mass graves of indigenous children on the grounds of residential schools previously operated by the Catholic Church, state broadcaster CBC has reported.
At least 33 churches were destroyed or badly damaged by fire between May 2021 and December 2023, the Canadian broadcaster reported on Wednesday, with just two of those having been ruled by investigators as accidental. The network added that 24 of the fires were cases of suspected arson, while several more remain under active investigation.
Citing researchers and community leaders, CBC stated that factors including Canada’s colonial history and the discovery of potential unmarked burial sites on Residential School grounds are thought to have been the motivation for many of the suspected arson cases. This includes allegations made in May 2021 that the remains of over 200 children could lie in an unmarked mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the province of British Columbia.
Ground-penetrating radar had revealed the possible remains of 215 children – with some thought to have been just three-years-old when they died. In the weeks following the announcement, 11 churches in western Canada were destroyed by fire in cases determined to be arson by investigators.
Thousands of other suspected unmarked graves have been identified since 2021 in Canada, though no remains have been physically exhumed – including at the Kamloops site.
Canada’s residential school system, in operation from the 1830s to the 1990s, was made up of government-sponsored religious-run institutions intended to forcefully assimilate children from the North American country’s indigenous population into Euro-Canadian culture. It is estimated that about 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children between 4 and 16 attended the schools – many of whom were subjected to abuse.
While many people who went through the system became devoted Christians, the Residential School system has created deep divides in Canadian society over the church’s role in their formation, and the attempted erasure of indigenous culture.
“[Churches] are on fire because no one’s really addressing the truth,” Paulina Johnson, a researcher at the University of Alberta, told CBC of the cases of suspected arson. “This isn’t to say that the arsons and the fires are justified, but it speaks to a bigger symbolic reality.”
Johnson, who comes from an indigenous background, added: “It gives them a voice. Because for the longest time, Canada hasn’t really acknowledged us.”
In 2015, a commission established to identify the impacts of Canada’s residential schools concluded that the system amounted to “genocide.” Pope Francis, on a visit to Canada in 2022, apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the system, and also acknowledged it as genocide.