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‘It’s a criminal act’: Prominent B.C. Interior Indigenous leader condemns church fires

The Chopaka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) burned to the ground early Saturday morning. Global News

Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised. 

A prominent Indigenous leader in the B.C. Southern Interior is condemning the acts of possible arson after four Catholic churches burnt down on First Nations land in six days.

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band, who is also the tribal chair and spokesperson of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, said there is no doubt in his mind the fires were intentionally set.

“I wouldn’t call it suspicious, I’d call it what it is, it’s a criminal act, it’s vandalism. It’s arson,” he told Global News on Sunday.

Read more: Grief, sorrow after discovery of 215 bodies, unmarked graves at former B.C. residential school site

“Obviously, it’s the same group of people. Why did they do it under the cover of darkness? Because it’s a criminal act and they are criminal.”

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On June 26 at 3:52 a.m., the RCMP received a call that the St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band (USIB) near the small community of Hedley, B.C., was on fire.

Less than one hour later, at 4:45 a.m., police were alerted to another fire at the Chopaka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) in Chopaka, approximately 58 kilometers away.

Click to play video: 'Evidence of an accelerant found at church fire scene in South Okanagan.' Evidence of an accelerant found at church fire scene in South Okanagan.
Evidence of an accelerant found at church fire scene in South Okanagan – Jun 22, 2021

The suspicious fires ignited five days after Catholic churches on the Penticton Indian Band Reserve (PIB) and Osoyoos Indian Band Reserve (OIB) in Oliver were reduced to rubble.

The Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band territory burns to the ground early Monday. Global News

No arrests have been made or charges laid in any of the four fires.

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Louie said there is grief and sorrow among Indigenous peoples following the preliminary findings of 215 children in unmarked graves at a site adjacent to the former Kamloops Residential School and an estimated 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School, reported by the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Read more: Saskatchewan residential school survivor reacts to discovery of unmarked graves

However, Louie believes the culprit’s anger is likely misplaced.

“It’s misplaced ignorance, stupidity, an alright criminal act by young people,” he presumed.

Click to play video: 'Church fires on reserve lands' Church fires on reserve lands
Church fires on reserve lands – Jun 21, 2021

Louie said worshippers of all faiths should be free to practice their religion where they choose.

“There’s those like me who hate the church with a passion, have nothing to do with the church, but there’s a lot of people, even within my own family, that believe in that religion. People are allowed to worship any which way they want,” he said.

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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, also denounced the church fires on Sunday.

“It is not really surprising given the fact that there are more and more discoveries made as we move through this tragic issue in terms of unmarked graves in First Nations communities, where there were residential schools,” Phillip said.

“As time moves forward, there will be further discoveries, the numbers will continue to escalate, and I think we can anticipate more backlash and responses from the Indigenous community at large.”

Read more: ‘A reckoning’: Canada residential school developments prompt policy changes in U.S.

More Canadian Catholic churches were targeted over the weekend.

In Northern B.C., a fire broke out at the century-old St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land, between Terrace and New Hazelton.

The doors of St. Paul Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon have been covered in paint following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Saskatchewan. Credit: Donna Heimbecker

A statue of Pope John Paul II outside the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in north-central Edmonton was vandalized with red paint on Sunday, while in Saskatchewan, the doors of a Saskatoon church were covered in red painted handprints.

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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

Louie encouraged peaceful action instead of illegal acts of vandalism in response to Canada’s atrocious history of church-run and government-sanctioned residential schools.

“I think it’s time for the public to demand action and shake up their elected leadership,” he said.

Louie also participated in a convoy of Syilx leaders, Indian Residential School survivors, their families (intergenerational), elders, members, and youth from across the Nation, who journeyed from Penticton to the Kamloops Indian Residential School on Saturday.

Read more: ‘Of course it’s suspicious’: 2 more Catholic churches burn in B.C.’s Southern Interior

The caravan gathered people together in unity to support the survivors and each other through the emotional impacts of the recent findings.

It also brought awareness to all those that are just now finding their relatives, as well as demonstrating our support for, and alliance with, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

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“To date, the Government of Canada has failed at taking any meaningful action or accountability for these atrocities,” Louie stated.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of unmarked graves found at former Saskatchewan residential school' Hundreds of unmarked graves found at former Saskatchewan residential school
Hundreds of unmarked graves found at former Saskatchewan residential school – Jun 24, 2021

“At this point, we are demanding local, provincial and federal officials finally step up to the plate, take direct action on finding justice for these children, and begin implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action.”

Louie is calling for a criminal investigation of the findings.

“All those kids in unmarked graves didn’t die of sickness or suicide, evidence would prove that they were killed, they were murdered,” he said.

“Some sort of criminal investigation needs to be done. If there were 20 white kids found in a grave, there would be a criminal investigation.”

Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419

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