The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he understands the rage, frustration and pain brought on by the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, but funnelling that anguish into burning down churches will not bring justice.
“To burn things down is not our way,” Perry Bellegarde said Wednesday. “Our way is to build relationships and come together.”
Several Catholic churches have recently been vandalized or damaged in fires following the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the national chief and other Indigenous leaders in echoing the call for an end to the fires.
“This is not the way to go. The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop,” Trudeau said.
“We must work together to right past wrongs.”
Early Wednesday morning, a historic Catholic church in Alberta was destroyed by fire and a Catholic church at a First Nation in Nova Scotia was damaged by flames.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney took to Twitter to condemn the blaze at St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, about 40 kilometres north of Edmonton, calling it a “violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community.”
Audrey Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, said the town and church have close relationships with the Métis community.
“Some of our citizens were married there. Some left shoes on the steps to commemorate the children whose lives were lost at residential schools,” Poitras said in a statement.
“Violence and destruction are not the way forward during these difficult times.”
Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia were also destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what RCMP said could be arson.
The fires occurred less than a month after the discovery of what’s believed to be the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
The Cowessess First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan announced last week that ground-penetrating radar detected a potential 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
And on Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band in B.C. said the same technology had located the remains of 182 people in unmarked graves near a former residential school site.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, which operated for more than 120 years in Canada. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has detailed mistreatment at the schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children. It also found crowded living conditions, poor nutrition and substandard medical care made the children more likely to die of disease and infection.
David Chartrand, vice-president of the Métis National Council, said many Indigenous people are Catholic and the destruction of churches can confound trauma they are already experiencing.
Chartrand, who is to be part of an Indigenous delegation visiting the Pope later this year, said earlier this week that while an apology is needed, the church continues to play an important role in the lives of some Indigenous people.
“There are customary processes that we’ve built into our culture around the churches.”
–With files from Maan Alhmidi and Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa