New Hazelton RCMP investigating suspicious church fire in Gitwangak.

Gitwangak church fire

New Hazelton RCMP are investigating a suspicious fire at the abandoned St. Paul's Anglican Church building in Gitwangak.

The fire was reported early Saturday morning at around 1:15 a.m. on Church Road. Police say the New Hazelton Fire Department responded to the blaze and quickly extinguished it, and there are no reports of any injuries.

Damage was minimal and the building remains intact.

"The RCMP are treating this fire as suspicious and are looking to determine what, if any, connection there may be to the recent church fires in the South Okanagan, within First Nation communities," said New Hazelton RCMP Staff Sgt. Darren Durnin.

Police would like to speak with anyone who may have information regarding this fire.

The church was built in 1893. Chief Councillor Sandra Larin says it's a point of pride for the community, and it's still a place of healing for religious community members.

"It was built at the hands of our community members and so many of our elders," she said. "It was a huge sense of pride to have that in place. It was built prior to residential schools starting to really take our children in earnest, so that blending of our traditional and formal faith was not soiled at that time."

Although the church was not connected to the residential school system, Larin suspects the fire is connected to people's heightened emotions following the discovery of mass, unmarked graves near residential schools in Kamloops and Saskatchewan.

"I understand their emotion. I hear them. It doesn't mean I agree with vandalism and arson as a response, but I hear the anger and the emotion and it's not for me to judge how people are feeling. My request to my community, as the elected chief counselor, is simply to be tolerant and to find other avenues to express their anger."

Larin also says the Gitwangak community has also been in talks about restoring the church long before Saturday's fire. She says those talks will continue in order to determine the priority for its restoration.

Photo source: Gitwangak Band Office (Facebook).