DOZENS of churches have been damaged or destroyed by arson in Canada, after the discovery of hundreds of graves of children close to residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church for indigenous children,
Many of the churches that have been set alight are on First Nations territory. Most are Roman Catholic, but there have also been fires at three Anglican churches. One, St Paul’s, Gitwangak, in British Colombia, was razed to the ground last week.
The fires follow the discovery by ground-penetrating radar of more than 750 unmarked graves on the grounds of Marieval Indian Residential School, in Cowessess First Nation lands, Saskatchewan. The youngest remains in the graves appear to belong to children aged just three years old. This followed the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in a Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. Kamloops opened in 1890 and closed 43 years ago.
Remains of a further 182 bodies were found in unmarked graves near the site of the former RC-run St Eugene’s Mission School, Cranbrook, in British Colombia.
Although no evidence has yet been produced concerning burials in the grounds of Anglican-run schools, the Anglican Primate, the Most Revd Linda Nicholls, said last month: “We know there are sites at Anglican residential schools where some graves are unmarked or where records are incomplete. We are committed to working with indigenous communities to assist to recover whatever information is available and to join in advocating for ground searches of those burial sites.”
Residential schools in Canada operated from 1883 to 1996. More than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend boarding schools in a programme that deliberately separated them from their families and eradicated their language and cultural heritage. Most schools were run by the RC Church, although some were run by other Churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada.
In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded nearly 1500 hours of testimony from former inmates of residential schools. The commission estimated that about 6000 of the 150,000 students died while in the schools, but only a fraction of these deaths are recorded officially.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, himself a Roman Catholic, has asked the Pope to apologise formally for the treatment of indigenous children in the schools. While recognising the anger felt at the revelations, he has urged an end to the attacks on churches.
He said: “I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support.” While he understood the anger, he said, “We shouldn’t be lashing out at buildings that can provide solace to some of our fellow citizens.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said last week that the Pope had invited survivors of the residential schools to visit the Vatican in December. He will meet First Nations, Metis, and Inuit survivors separately before holding a final audience with all three groups.
Although the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches of Canada have previously apologised for the part that they played in the abuse of indigenous children, there has been no formal apology from the Roman Catholic Church.
Archbishop Nicholls said last month: “There have long been stories told in Indigenous communities of children who disappeared or never returned home from residential school, and whose parents were never told what had happened or given the opportunity to receive their bodies for community ceremony.
“Whether the deaths were due to illnesses, abuse, or neglect, the lack of dignity offered to these children by an anonymous burial far from their family or community is tragic and unacceptable. We grieve with all whose children never came home.
“The Anglican Church of Canada shares in the painful legacy of residential schools. We remain committed to the long, hard road of reconciliation, including apologies made for our part in residential schools (1993) and for the devastating spiritual harm caused (2019) and ongoing work towards reconciliation and support for healing for personal and intergenerational trauma.”