Canada

Two on-reserve churches burned down on Indigenous Peoples Day in B.C.’s interior

By  Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Two Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in B.C.’s interior burned to the ground early this morning on Indigenous Peoples Day.

One fire started at the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band (PIB) land around 1:30 a.m. says PIB Chief Greg Gabriel.

“I got a call around 2:00 this morning,” he says. “The church had already gone up in flames and it burned so quickly.”

Gabriel says it’s not yet known what caused the fire, and PIB is currently investigating. He says they are working to salvage items from the rubble — such as art by Clint George, a PIB member, and the church bell. 

Flames rise from the Sacred Heart Church early on June 21. Screenshot courtesy of Hector Alec.

Gabriel says there is a lot of anger within the community at this time because of the children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS).

“If this [fire] was determined to be deliberate, our leadership certainly doesn’t condone those kinds of actions or behaviour,” Gabriel tells IndigiNews. “I think there could have been better ways to deal with this church.”

‘Very tragic loss’

The Sacred Heart Church has been closed since June 16 in response to a request from parishioners who are members of PIB, says Adam Eneas. 

Adam Eneas is a hereditary chief with the Okanagan Nation. He says he asked Bishop Gregory Bittman to close the church on behalf of a fellow parishioner “because of what’s going on with the residential schools.”

“He was very open and accepting and wanting to learn about our problems, our history. We had a great meeting,” Eneas says. “He agreed that the church should remain closed until such time as they came to a better situation.”

Eneas says he sees the burning of the church as a “very tragic loss” for the PIB community. 

The Sacred Heart Church was built in 1911. It used to be attached to the Indian day school until that building was burned down in the mid 1960s, according to Eneas — who used to be a student at the day school. 

People pose outside of the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band (PIB) land on Easter Sunday in 1912. Photo courtesy of Donna Olman.

Penticton Indian Band member Hector Alec says he was “devastated” to hear about the fire because of the memories he has with his grandmothers at the church. 

“Lots of memories, both of my grandmothers went there every Sunday. I remember the hymns sung in Okanagan like it was yesterday … [I] was hearing them as I watched it burn,” Alec says. 

Church burned in Oliver, too

Saint Gregory’s church also went up in flames early this morning. It was located on Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver, B.C. 

Oliver fire chief Bob Graham confirmed with IndigiNews that his department was called to a fire at Saint Gregory’s at around 3 a.m. this morning. 

“When we arrived on scene the building was fully involved and had collapsed … it was just a pile of rubble on fire,” he says.

While the exact cause hasn’t yet been confirmed, Graham says “it is extremely suspicious,” adding there was “some indication of accelerant … some liquid around the area that was flammable.”

IndigiNews requested an interview with Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, but he was unavailable for comment before deadline.

Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/he Discourse