Another church on First Nations land in British Columbia has been targeted by what the elected chief of the Gitwangak Band says was an intentional fire.
It comes after four other churches on Indigenous territory were burned to the ground in B.C.’s interior, and amid news of the discovery of hundreds of bodies in unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
Chief Sandra Larin said the fire at the century-plus old St. Paul’s Anglican Church was reported around 1 a.m. Saturday, and the local volunteer fire department was able to put it out before it destroyed the building.
Gitwangak is in northwestern B.C., between Terrace and New Hazelton.
RCMP confirmed the fire, and said it was being investigated as “suspicious.” The church was vacant at the time and no one was injured, police said.
Police are investigating a possible connection with the torching of churches in the southern interior.
Following the fire, Larin posted a video to the community condemning the act and urging them to seek peaceful ways to heal.
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“The challenge I have and that I put out to the community is … in direct response to the heightened emotions that people have with the world awakening to the residential school tragedies we’ve known as Indigenous people forever,” she told Global News in an interview.
“While I understand that hostility and needing to find a way to heal from it, that church was built by our ancestors in the late 1800s by the hands of our elders at the time with such a great sense of pride. There are many in this village that still have a strong, formal religious faith and they find healing from that.”
Larin said it was clear that the fire was intentional, and that it destroyed the front steps of the church but the main structure and its historic tower remained standing.
Volunteer firefighters stayed on-scene overnight to keep an eye on the site, and Larin said additional security has been posted in the area.
Early Saturday morning, Catholic churches in the Lower and Upper Similkameen Indian Bands were completely destroyed in what the RCMP is calling suspicious fires.
Lower Similkameen band Chief Keith Crow said with the region sweltering under a heat wave, the fire could easily have spread to other nearby buildings.
He added both churches were regularly used and valued by members of the First Nation.
On Monday morning, historic Catholic churches on Penticton and Osoyoos band land were also destroyed, horrifying community members.
Larin said she understood that many Indigenous people were struggling with anger and hostility towards the church, and were looking for ways to rebel.
Many Indigenous people feel their lives have not changed in recent years, despite recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, promises and apologies from government, and expressions of support from some of the public.
Most Indigenous have chosen peaceful methods to protest, march or hold vigils — and she asked people to avoid criminal actions.
“I remember this church being such a sense of pride for many of our elders, and it’s still a place of healing, the church provides healing for those that choose to heal that way,” she said.
“Whether or not we believe in formalized religion or we believe in the creator or we believe in both, this isn’t the way. Begetting violence with violence isn’t going to get us anywhere. Healing starts with forgiveness, and that’s what I’m going to ask from folks.”