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Canada: As hundreds of unmarked graves of residential school victims are found, churches are being burned, unrest grows over painful past

According to Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta grand chief Arthur Noskey, the Churches need to be protected as they are potential evidence sites. He said, "We’ll be talking to our members directly and our elders as well. I know everybody’s hurting and the whole nation is in an uproar, but you know, for us, the truth is coming out.

In recent weeks, several sites of mass burials and unmarked graves have been found in places where Canada’s infamous Christian residential schools for indigenous children once functioned. The unmarked graves are a testimony of a painful past where the government and Christian churches inflicted atrocities against the native population.

As anger and pain spreads among the First Nation people, five churches built on Indigenous land have so far been burnt down.

As per reports, the Churches include St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Chopaka Catholic Church, Sacred Heart Church, and St. Gregory’s Church.

Following the multiple cases of fire outbreaks, the Candian authorities have launched a probe into this matter. On June 26, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, which is built on Upper Similkameen Indian Band land, mysteriously caught fire. Within an hour, another fire outbreak was reported from Chopaka Catholic Church on Lower Similkameen Indian Band land.

Sacred Heart Church and St. Gregory’s Church, located in Canada’s Okanagan area, caught fire on June 21 last month. Both of them were burnt to the ground. While speaking about the matter, Father Sylvester Obi Ibekwe said, “The (Sacred Heart) Church is gone. All I could see were ashes, ruins, rubbles. How could that be? What happened? What can I do now? I felt helpless and powerless.” The police have so far not made any arrests in the case.

First Nation Indians accused of burning Churches, Alberta Premier calls it ‘hate crime’

In a tweet on Wednesday (June 30), journalist Jon Miller blamed First Nation Indians (indigenous tribes) for burning down Churches. He alleged, “Another Catholic Church (St. Jean Baptiste) burst into flames and was razed to the ground in (Morinville) Edmonton as First Nation Indians continue to attack churches across Western Canada.”

After the razing of St. Jean Baptiste church, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney slammed the incident as ‘unacceptable and ‘hate crime.’ He tweeted, “I condemn what appears to be another violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community. The century-old église de Saint-Jean-Baptiste was the heart of Morinville, and a key part of the history and spiritual life of Alberta’s francophone community.”

Meanwhile, two Catholic groups called Oblates, which were involved in running residential schools in Canada, stated, “We remain deeply sorry for our involvement in residential schools and the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities.” They have promised to reveal all historical documents that are available at their disposal. It is believed that the residential school system in Canada had claimed the lives of thousands of children belonging to the indigenous community.

Apart from the children who died in the residential schools, countless others suffered psychological, physical and emotional abuse. The residential schools were government-funded and were operated by the Catholic church to “educate” and assimilate indigenous children in a ‘white, Christian society. Children were separated from their families and were punished for speaking their native language and anything related to native culture and traditions were systematically wiped out.

In 2008, the government of Canada had formally apologised to First Nation people for running the residential schools.

First Nation Indians furious after the discovery of hundreds of human remains

In a statement, the Lower Similkameen India Band’s Chief and Council conceded that the attacks were the result of the ‘grief and rage’ felt by indigenous First Nation Indians, following the discovery of mass burials. “This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and intergenerational descendants are experiencing, there are supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” the statement read.

Many of the Churches that were burnt during the past two weeks were Catholic Churches. And the mass graves were found in the vicinity of residential schools, run by the said Churches until the 1960s. It was only later that the Canadian federal government took over the reins of the school administration. Reportedly, between the late 19th century and 1996, atleast 130 such residential schools were in operational in the country.

According to Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta grand chief Arthur Noskey, the Churches need to be protected as they are potential evidence sites. He said, “We’ll be talking to our members directly and our elders as well. I know everybody’s hurting and the whole nation is in an uproar, but you know, for us, the truth is coming out.”

Slamming the Vatican Pope, he said, “Don’t even set foot in Canada. (An) apology is going to do nothing,” he said. If I went and took your kids out of school, or anywhere, and abused them in school and in the process, come tell you … ‘I’m sorry,’ what does that do for you?”

Discovery of mass unmarked graves of the indigenous people in Canada

Notably, two mass graves were found earlier, one with 215 graves in Kamloops was found on May 27, 2021, and 751 graves in Saskatchewan were found just a week ago, on June 24. On June 30, another mass grave was reported near a former residential school in Canada. The Lower Kootenay Band, a member band of the Ktunaxa Nation, said that remains of 182 people were found in mass graves close to former St. Eugene’s Mission School in Cranbrook. The graves were spotted with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a large number of indigenous children that attended residential schools never made it back to their home communities. Some children ran away while others died at the schools. These students are now called the “Missing Children”. The Missing Children Project documents and deaths and burial sites of such children who died while attending the residential schools. So far, the project has identified over 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school.

In a report published in 2015 after a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system, it was termed as “cultural genocide”. The report documented horrific details of abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities suffered by the students who attended the school. As many as 150,000 were known to have attended the school system between the 1840s and 1990s. The recently discovered remains of 215 are believed to be new burial sites and not included in the list of over 4,100 students who died at the schools.

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Dibakar Dutta
Fascinated by Indian politics

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