2 Catholic churches on B.C. reserves burn to ground in 'suspicious' fires on National Indigenous Peoples Day
VANCOUVER -- Two Catholic churches, both located on First Nations reserve land, went up in flames and then burned to the ground in B.C.’s South Okanagan region on National Indigenous Peoples Day, and band leaders are expressing grief and shock.
The first fire destroyed the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land. A Penticton RCMP officer was on patrol when he observed the fire on Green Mountain Road at 1:22 a.m., according to a statement from the RCMP.
“By the time the officer arrived on scene the church was fully engulfed,” reads the statement from Sgt. Jason Bayda of the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP.
Penticton Indian Band leaders said in a statement that they’re in “disbelief and anger” and that many members “sought comfort and solace in the church.”
The second fire, near Oliver, was on Osoyoos Indian Band land, at St. Gregory’s Church on Nk’Mip Road. Oliver fire crews were called just before 3 a.m. Monday. When they arrived, the church was fully engulfed, and crews stayed on the scene for six hours.
The fires come about a month after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced it had discovered remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the nearby Kamloops Indian Residential School which was run by church missionaries. Both the Penticton and Osoyoos bands are members of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, as is the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.
Both churches had active congregations.
So far there is no indication that the fires are related to the discovery at the Kamloops school. But the RCMP says the two fires are suspicious.
“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive,” Bayda said.
The Penticton Indian Band leadership said the recent discovery in Kamloops has been traumatic, and although it sparked grief and rage across the country it believes that setting fire to the churches won’t heal the intergenerational wounds of residential schools.
“We have supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” reads their statement.
“We cannot speculate that the person(s) responsible had any connection to the Indigenous communities in our region, all we can do is to be there for one another in this unbelievably hard time,” reads the statement.
The leadership also stressed that members are free to follow whatever religion feels right to them.
“It is not our place to say who to worship and what historical relevance it has to our people, we are all free to choose and it is our place as a community to support that freedom.”
Fire Chief Bob Graham of the Oliver Fire Department, whose crews responded to the fire on the Osoyoos Indian Band land said firefighters went into defensive mode when they arrived on scene. There was nothing they could do to rescue the church, he said, so they worked to make sure it didn’t spread to the nearby desert brush.
RCMP say they are working with both the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands as they investigate.
“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” Bayda said.
Police are asking for anyone who may have witnessed people or vehicles near either churches either late on June 20 or early on June 21, to contact the Penticton RCMP detachment at 250-492-4300.