Chopoka Catholic Church burns

Photo Credit: Keith Crow/CBC

An arsonist has set fire to a Catholic church on the Siksika Nation.

The incident comes after three BC churches were set ablaze over the weekend, bringing the total to six churches targeted on First Nations land in one week.

The spate of fires follows the news of hundreds of bodies discovered in unmarked graves near former residential schools in Saskatchewan and BC.

“At 12:30 a.m., on Monday June 28, 2021, Gleichen RCMP responded to complaint of a structure fire located on Map 8 of the Siksika Nation,” said RCMP in a release.

“Preliminary investigation indicates that unknown person(s) deliberately started a fire at the Siksika First Nation Catholic Church.

“The Siksika Fire Department was able to put out the fire before any significant structural damage was caused. No one was in the church at the time of the incident and no one was injured as a result of the fire. 

“The Provincial Fire Investigator and the Gleichen RCMP continue to investigate.”

The first BC church hit on the weekend, which was abandoned, was set afire on Gitwangak Indian Band’s land.

The call came into New Hazelton RCMP on June 26 at 1:15 a.m. saying there was a fire in the entryway of an abandoned Anglican church on Church Road in Gitwangak.

The church sustained minimal damage and 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 Staff Sgt. Darren Durnin, of New Hazelton RCMP.

A few hours later, Princeton, BC RCMP received a call at 3:52 a.m., the caller saying St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band (USIB) was in flames.

Less than an hour later, at 4:45 a.m., the Keremeos BC RCMP got a call the Chopoka Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) was on fire.

That fire spread to nearby brush but was extinguished by BC Wildfire crews before spreading further, said RCMP.

Both churches were destroyed.

“The RCMP are treating both of these fires as suspicious and are looking to determine any possible connection to the church fires in both Penticton and Oliver on June 21, 2021”, said Sgt Jason Bayda, Media Relations Officer for the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP.

“The investigations into the previous fires and these two new fires are ongoing with no arrests or charges.”

The fires – which took place during a heat wave, and could have easily spread beyond control – have been condemned by First Nations leaders.

On May 31, St. Joseph’s church in Kamloops was vandalized with the words “banished” and “crime scene” spray painted on the walls. The chief of the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc, Rosanne Casimir, condemned the vandalism.

On June 12, vandals wrote “release the records” and “killers” on the front entrance of St. Augustine’s Church in Vancouver, and St. Joseph’s Parish in Port Moody was also found vandalized the morning of June 13.

A statue of Pope John Paul II outside the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton was vandalized with red paint on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Reid Small is a BC correspondent for the Western Standard

Reporter (BC)

Reid Small is a BC Reporter for the Western Standard and West Coast Standard based in the Vancouver Bureau. He has worked as a freelance photojournalist and in independent media.

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