Another church on Indigenous land in British Columbia has been destroyed by fire.
It is the second time in less than a week that flames broke out at the St. Paul’s Anglican Church in the village of Gitwangak, west of New Hazleton.
Fire crews were able to quickly extinguish a small fire on the church stairs on Saturday, but Gitwangak Band elected chief Sandra Larin said the fire that broke out around 10 p.m. on Canada Day destroyed the building.
Firefighters were able to protect the adjacent church army hall and historic church tower, but Larin said the blaze could have been a catastrophe, drawing parallels to the fire that wiped out Lytton on Wednesday.
“The climate’s very dry. There’s a lot of brush around. Those other two structures are wooden, there’s homes that could have caught fire,” she said.
“We’re just really, really grateful that it wasn’t more tragic than it was.”
The RCMP said it was investigating both fires as suspicious, and urged any witnesses to contact the New Hazelton detachment with information.
Larin said she would leave it to the RCMP to determine if the fire was arson. If police do find the fire to have been intentional, she said she wants to see the perpetrators prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The band council has also authorized a $2,500 reward for anyone with information that leads to an arrest.
“Losing the church is one thing — putting our entire community in danger, putting our firefighters in danger over protest? There are better ways to get our message out,” she said.
The incident comes amid a string of suspicious church fires in B.C. and in other parts of Canada, following the discovery of the remains of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former Indian Residential Schools.
Larin, whose own mother was a residential school survivor, said she understood the deep feelings and anger the discoveries have sparked among Indigenous people, who have tried for years to bring attention to the horrors of the system that isolated and sought to assimilate Indigenous children.
But she said the church, which was hand-built by Gitwangak elders more than a century ago, was a point of pride to many in the community and its destruction only resulted in more pain and anguish.
“We just can’t judge how people find healing … and some people find such healing and solace from formalized faith. Others are angered by it, and both can be true,” she said.
“We need to come together as a community and our surrounding communities and figure out what’s going to work with us, both culturally centered and traditional healing, along with whatever western medicines or counseling or support that’s required. There’s no wrong answers to what you need, and we’re committed to providing it to whoever is willing to accept support.”
Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia have been destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what the RCMP said could be arson.
Two church fires in Alberta are also being investigated.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the fires, saying “destroying places of worship” is “not the way to go.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Belgarde has also spoken out about the fires, saying he understood Indigenous people’s rage and frustration but called for peace.
“To burn things down is not our way,” Bellegarde said Wednesday. “Our way is to build relationships and come together.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
–With files from Emerald Bensadoun and The Canadian Press