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2 churches on reserve land destroyed by fire in South Okanagan

Click to play video: 'Church fires on reserve lands' Church fires on reserve lands
Suspicious fires have destroyed two Catholic churches in the Okanagan. Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band lands and St. Gregory church on Osoyoos Indian Band lands have been reduced to rubble. Both fires happened overnight and are under investigation. As Shelby Thom reports, the fires happened on National Indigenous People’s Day. – Jun 21, 2021

Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land burned down early Monday.

The fire broke out at 1:30 a.m. on Green Mountain Road. The Penticton Fire Department and Penticton Indian Band have opened a joint investigation to determine the cause of the blaze, which took 25 firefighters and two engines to extinguish.

The 110-year-old church was likely one of the oldest in the South Okanagan and was built by members of the P.I.B. Now, it is completely destroyed.

Click to play video: 'What the Catholic church destroyed by fire meant to Penticton Indian Band' What the Catholic church destroyed by fire meant to Penticton Indian Band
What the Catholic church destroyed by fire meant to Penticton Indian Band – Jun 21, 2021

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel told Global News he was called around 2 a.m. Monday from a staff member saying the church was “already gone.”

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“It shocked the hell out of me. It was such an old church, it went up so fast,” he added.

“A lot of memories in this church, a lot of baptisms, a lot of marriages, sadly funerals. We enjoyed the Easter masses, the Christmas masses and all of those things.”

Gabriel said he has already received calls from elders and other members saying how sad they are the church is gone.

It is not known if the fire is connected to the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Gabriel said he knows there is “a lot of anger among Indigenous members throughout Canada, just because of that.”

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An investigation is underway to determine how the fire started.

Click to play video: 'Video captures 110-year-old church on Penticton Indian Band land burning' Video captures 110-year-old church on Penticton Indian Band land burning
Video captures 110-year-old church on Penticton Indian Band land burning – Jun 21, 2021

Another fire was reported to the St. Gregory Mission on Nk’Mip Road on Osoyoos Indian Band at 3:30 a.m.

Oliver Fire Chief Bob Graham said the church, which was built in 1910, was destroyed by the time he and 15 to 25 firefighters arrived on scene.

Read more: Okanagan to mark National Indigenous Day in honour of children in unmarked graves in Kamloops

“By the time we had responded, when trucks arrived on scene, the building was pretty much reduced to just burning rubble,” Graham said.

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“So our focus was to keep it from flaring up or from the embers being able to get to the sagebrush or the desert grass which were located by it.”

Graham said it is suspected that an accelerant was used in the St. Gregory fire and that arson is suspected given the time, location and circumstances around the blaze.

Read more: Okanagan First Nations call for accountability after remains found at B.C. residential school

Click to play video: 'Catholic churches on B.C. First Nations’ lands burned down' Catholic churches on B.C. First Nations’ lands burned down
Catholic churches on B.C. First Nations’ lands burned down – Jun 22, 2021

“Our guys did well in the situation…. We weren’t too sure what we were going to run into,” said Graham.

It is not known if the two fires are connected.

Penticton RCMP and Oliver RCMP shared in a joint press release stating that the fires have been deemed suspicious.

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“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” said Sgt. Jason Bayda.

“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”

Bayda said investigations will continue to be a joint effort with the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands.

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