Two more Catholic churches have burned in B.C.’s Southern Interior.
Chief of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Keith Crow, confirmed to Global News on Saturday morning that a church in the community of Hedley burned, as did one in the border community of Chopaka.
Hedley is about an hour’s drive southwest of Penticton, while Chopaka is about a half-hour west of Osoyoos.
“I got a phone call early this morning from one of our members that our church was on fire down in Chopaka,” Crow told Global News.
“Upon that phone call, I got another phone call from the Upper Similkameen Indian Band that their church has also been burned.”
The incident follows the burning of two other South Okanagan churches on reserve land early Monday.
Crow said he attended one scene this morning, and the church has been razed to the ground.
“It’s down to ash,” he said.
“Of course it’s suspicious,” Crow added when asked about the fire.
“Two fires again, two more churches in one night. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”
Asked about the community’s reaction to Saturday’s news, Crow called it heartbreaking.
“We still have people who worship and practice their religion. They had service there a couple of weeks ago,” said Crow.
“I don’t condone this at all. I support all my members, regardless of their religion and what their beliefs are. I hope, in the long run, these individuals do get caught. This is unacceptable.”
On Saturday afternoon, RCMP issued a statement, saying they’re investigating the two incidents involving the St. Ann’s Catholic Church, located on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band near Hedley, and the Chopaka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
Police said Princeton RCMP received a call at 3:52 a.m., that the St. Ann’s Church was on fire.
Then at 4:45 a.m., Keremeos RCMP received a call that the Chopaka Catholic Church was on fire.
Police noted that the Chopaka fire spread to nearby brush, which was quickly extinguished by BC Wildfire crews before spreading further.
“The (Penticton South Okanagan Similkameen) RCMP are treating both of these fires as suspicious and are looking to determine any possible connection to the church fires in both Penticton and Oliver on June 21, 2021″, said RCMP Sgt. Jason Bayda.
“The investigations into the previous fires and these two new fires are ongoing with no arrests or charges.”
Police are asking anyone with information regarding the two new fires to contact the Penticton RCMP at 250-492-4300.
Crow was also asked about links and possible anger at the Catholic church following the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Kamloops last month, and now this week in Saskatchewan.
“That’s where it all started,” Crow said. “It’s not news to us, the burials at Kamloops; we’ve always heard about it, we’ve always talked about it.
“I’m glad that they were finally uncovered. But on the other side, it is heartbreaking at the same time. The 215 who were found there . . . it’s devastating.”
Crow said his band’s records indicate there were a couple of LSIB members who did not return from the former residential school in Kamloops.
“Honestly, I don’t know what to say. It’s heartbreaking,” said Crow. “And I do worry about the reaction of other communities across Canada who’ve had residential schools within their territory, within their nations.
“I think most communities have a small church and some people still practice, and I support them.”
Crow said the church in Hedley burned around 3 a.m., while the one in Chopaka was closer to 4 a.m.
The burned churches came as Crow and other First Nations in the region planned on assembling in Kamloops on Saturday afternoon to honour residential school survivors and the unmarked graves.
It’s believed the assembly will include several First Nations and could reach well in excess of 100 people.
Crow also touched on how it was fortunate that the church fires didn’t lead to a potential wildfire, given how dry the region is, along with the heat wave that’s baking the area.
“Honestly, I was very happy that I had a fellow counsellor down there and a couple of other people,” said Crow, adding they were fortunate to have calm weather conditions. “We had rakes and shovels and we put a fire break where the fire was starting to spread.
“I got to be a firefighter this morning.”
Crow said B.C. Wildfire came in and mopped up, for which he was thankful. He also mentioned a power line came down and was throwing sparks, and that FortisBC had to be contacted to shut off the power.
“Once that was shut off, we were able to get in there and help out,” said Crow, “put a couple of these little spot fires out and grass fires that were starting to move.”
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