'Not in solidarity with us': Indigenous leaders call for church arsons to stop

Residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders are calling for unknown arsonists to stop burning down churches after more than a dozen Christian places of worship were set on fire and vandalized recently.

The fires are believed to be in reaction to the confirmation of more than a thousand unmarked graves so far at several former residential school sites.

“Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us indigenous people. As I said we do not destroy people's places of worship,” said Jenn Allan-Riley, an assistant Pentecostal minister at Living Waters Church, in a press conference on Monday.

“We're concerned about the burning and defacing of churches bringing more strife, depression and anxiety to those already in pain and mourning."

Allan-Riley, who is a ‘60s Scoop survivor and the daughter of a residential school survivor, said the church arsons were fuelling further division between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, and that burning the churches “is not our native way.”

Some of the buildings that have been decimated by fires include a century-old Catholic church just outside of Edmonton. One of the most recent attacks was at the Vietnamese Alliance Church in Calgary on Sunday, which hours earlier held its first full service in over a year. Days before, at least 10 churches were damaged across the city in a single night.

“When I look at the building, it’s so sad…That’s where we worship the Lord,” said Reverend Mabini Dabalos, the pastor of the House of Prayer Alliance Church.

Cheryle O’Sullivan, a residential school survivor, said during the press conference the fires were reminiscent of how Indigenous totem poles and ceremonial houses were burned to the ground when European settlers first came. She and Allan-Riley do not believe the fires were set by Indigenous people, because it would cause further harm to Indigenous communities.

Allan-Riley said there are other ways to show support and solidarity, adding that some of these churches are also places of worship for some Indigenous people as well.

“Some residential school survivors have remained Catholic, and now have lost their place of worship and comfort,” she said.

Most of the attacks have been directed at Catholic churches, some of which are located on First Nations territories.

O’Sullivan also worried that the fires may have destroyed or could destroy records related to residential schools should more churches come under attack.

No arrests or suspects have been announced by the RCMP, but the string of suspicious church fires and vandalism across Canada began after 215 unmarked graves were discovered in Kamloops, B.C., followed by 751 found near the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Last week, 182 more were discovered near Cranbrook, B.C. close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School. It is widely expected that similar discoveries will be made at dozens of former residential school sites across the Canada, the majority of which were run by the Catholic Church.

Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated his condemnation on Monday of the fires and said vandalism, arson, and destruction of public property were not the way forward as a country.

“I fully understand the anger and the grief that so many people are feeling,” he told reporters on Monday.

“I have repeatedly over the past weeks and indeed months, condemned the attacks on religious institutions and over the past weeks condemned the burning of Catholic churches. That is simply not right. It is a shame and, indeed, it is something that is going to prevent people who will seek solace in times of grief from being able to visit their own places of worship.”

With files from CTV News’ Melanie Nagy in Vancouver and CTV Vancouver’s Tessa Vikander