Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional Tweets from Naomi Sayers which state: “Burn it all down. Doesn’t literally mean, burn it down.” Ms. Sayers subsequently advised Global News, through her lawyer, that she doesn’t support burning down churches.
The executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is facing criticism over comments she made on social media in response to the burning of multiple churches in the wake of the discovery of human remains in unmarked graves at former residential schools.
Harsha Walia leads the organization, which fights for civil liberties and human rights. She is also a long-time advocate for migrant justice, Indigenous rights, equality and economic justice.
In a June 30 tweet responding to a news article about a pair of Catholic churches burning down, Walia wrote “burn it all down.”
The tweet set off a firestorm on social media, both from people who described the message as inflammatory and stoking hate, and others who defended the tweet, saying people have no right to police Indigenous people’s grief and rage.
Walia has since locked her Twitter account. Neither she nor the BC Civil Liberties Association responded to an interview request.
In a series of tweets after the account was locked and circulating as screen shots, Walia allegedly writes that she does not romanticize the church burnings but empathizes with the rage and sadness “that can lead to different actions in moments of upheaval.”
“It’s totally ridiculous to suggest I am actively calling for arson,” one tweet reads. “And yes, I do think deadly genocidal colonialism locally and globally needs to collapse,” reads another.
Chris Sankey, a Tsimshian First Nation entrepreneur and Indigenous relations consultant, said he felt Walia should resign.
“Just that one simple tweet where she said ‘burn it down,’ she actually got a lot of support for that and it’s just absolutely saddening that people feel that way — that’s not how we bridge our relationships that’s not how we move forward together, it’s infuriating,” he said.
“You’re encouraging violence and hate and if that’s what you’re trying to do you have no business having any sort of platform whatsoever, that’s not who we are as Indigenous people, that’s not who we are as British Columbians and that’s not who we are as Canadians and it needs to stop. Someone’s gonna get killed yet and that’s my biggest concern.”
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), which has partnered with the BCCLA on a number of issues, came to Walia’s defence Sunday afternoon.
“UBCIC stands in strong solidarity with (Harsha Walia) in condemning the brutally gruesome genocide of residential ‘school’ system by Canada and Church while crown stole FN land,” the group wrote on Twitter.
“She is a highly respected and valued ally; we are grateful for her ongoing support and leadership.”
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he felt the tweet went too far.
“I thought it was just disgusting and reprehensible that somebody who heads up an organization like that would make such comments,” he said.
“It’s vile beyond belief, it does nothing to bring about reconciliation. All it does is create conflict and division.”
There have been at least seven fires at six B.C. churches since the initial discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Five of those churches were completely destroyed, and RCMP are investigating the fires as suspicious.
All of the churches were on Indigenous lands, and in many cases were built by Indigenous people themselves.
Indigenous leaders, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Belgarde, as well as local elected leaders of the First Nations whose land contained the churches, have condemned the fires.
“Whether or not we believe in formalized religion or we believe in the creator or we believe in both, this isn’t the way,” Gitwangak Band Elected Chief Sandra Larin told Global News in a previous interview.
“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.”
Keith Crow, chief of the Lower Similkameen Band, told Global News in June that many members of his community still practised formalized religion and were devastated by a pair of church fires in his area.
“I don’t condone this at all. I support all my members, regardless of their religion and what their beliefs are,” he said.
“I hope, in the long run, these individuals do get caught. This is unacceptable.”