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Prime Minister Trudeau speaks about Canada church burnings

Prime Minister Trudeau

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John Burger - published on 07/03/21 - updated on 07/03/21

The list of church blazes and acts of vandalism continues to grow.

The latest suspicious fire in a church in Western Canada was on Thursday at St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Since June 21, there have now been at least eight fires at churches — most of them Catholic — and many of the fires have been devastating. 

In addition, since that date, multiple churches have been vandalized.

Until Friday, only one senior government official, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, spoke out about the incidents. But in answer to a reporter’s question at a Friday morning press conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented, almost two weeks since the first of the fires.

Trudeau said he “understands the anger that’s out there against the federal government, against institutions like the Catholic Church … given the shameful history we are all becoming more and more aware of. … But I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning” of places where they can go for that. 

In French, Trudeau added that burning down churches is “not something we should be doing as Canadians. Rather, we should listen to each other, we should understand each other and the strong feelings that people have, and we should do that hard work to rebuild our society.”

Trudeau also said that the federal government has put into place a “security infrastructure system that partners with places of worship to be able to put in cameras and security systems to keep those institutions safe from what is, unfortunately, a rise of intolerance and racism and hatred that we’re seeing across the country.” 

The blazes began in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked burial sites on the properties of former residential schools in western Canada. The residential school system, which was phased out in the late 20th century, was a federal program to assimilate Native Peoples into Canadian society. 

According to reports, the system took children away from their families and placed them in boarding schools, many of them run by religious organizations, and forced them to abandon their native language and culture. There apparently also was abuse of children at the schools. Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases led to the early deaths of many, but many families never recovered the bodies of their children or were fully informed about what happened to them. 

Trudeau and tribal leaders have called for a formal apology from Pope Francis, who has pledged to meet with representatives of Native Peoples at the Vatican in December.

“Pray for peace”

Meantime, while investigations still must be carried out, it is thought that at least some of the church fires and acts of vandalism might be in response to the findings of the graves. 

The fire in the Yellowknife co-cathedral broke out shortly after midnight Thursday. The building sustained minor damage, and no one was injured. In a news release, police in Yellowknife said that due to the recent fires and vandalism at other churches, they are treating the fire as suspicious and have launched a criminal investigation.

Bishop Jon Hansen of Mackenzie-Fort Smith said in a statement, “We are fully aware that this fire is one of many similar events that have taken place across Canada so we simply ask people to pray for peace.” 

On Wednesday, a First Nations leader in Alberta released a video condemning the fires and vandalism.

“We are asking you as members, as the Nehiyaw and the Dene, and the communities, in your communities, where you have these churches, that we’re asking you to refrain from vigilante actions against the church buildings,” said Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, speaking in both Cree and English.

Here is a list of incidents so far:

  • June 21 (National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada), 1:30 a.m.: Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land, British Columbia: burned to the ground.
  • June 21, 3 a.m.: St. Gregory’s Church on the Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver, British Columbia: burned to the ground.
  • June 26, 1 a.m.: St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land, British Columbia. minor damage. 
  • June 26, 3:52 a.m.: St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band near Hedley, British Columbia: completely destroyed. 
  • June 26, 4:45 a.m.: Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Chopaka, British Columbia: completely destroyed. 
  • June 27, overnight: Statue of Pope St. John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton, Alberta: covered in red hand prints; red footprints tracked to the front door of the church. 
  • June 28, overnight: Siksika First Nation Catholic Church, Alberta: extinguished before causing severe damage.
  • June 30, early morning hours: St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville, just outside of Edmonton, Alberta: burned to the ground.
  • July 1 (Canada Day), 12:30 a.m.: St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: partly burned; minor damage.
  • July 1: At least 11 churches in Calgary — many of them Catholic — vandalized with red paint, including paint splattered over a statue of Jesus, painted handprints on doors and text reading “Charge the priests” and “Our lives matter.” Also, a smashed church window, with paint thrown inside and the number 751 painted across a church sign — an apparent reference to the 751 unmarked graves identified at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
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