Canadian PM Trudeau denounces church burnings after graves discovered at Catholic schools

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018. | (Photo: Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced the arson attacks on Catholic churches in the country following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

Recent discoveries of approximately 1,100 unmarked graves at three residential schools for indigenous people overseen by Catholic churches are thought to be the reason for an uptick in the destruction of church buildings.

Trudeau, a member of the Roman Catholic Church who has called on Pope Francis to issue a formal apology for the treatment of indigenous children at the schools, told a recent news conference that the church vandalism could not be justified.

“I understand the anger that is out there against the federal government and institutions like the Catholic Church. It’s real and it is fully understandable given the shameful history we are all becoming more aware of and engaging ourselves to do better,” stated Trudeau last Friday.

“I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support.”

The prime minister said, "we shouldn't be lashing out at buildings that can provide solace to some of our fellow citizens." He said Canadians should instead be committing themselves to the "hard work that we need to do to rebuild a path forward that reflects the terrible intergenerational trauma and present-day realities, the suffering that we are all collectively responsible for." 

In addition to attacks on churches, statues have been vandalized, including statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth located on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature. They were torn down and the Queen Victoria statue was covered with red paint.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told AP that while he “personally wouldn’t have participated in” the vandalisms, he believed that “it has been a very triggering time over the past few weeks.”

“It’s unfortunate that they chose to express themselves the way that they did. But it’s actually a symbol of the fact that there is a lot of hurt and that there’s a lot of frustration and anger with just how things have happened,” added Dumas.

In May, the remains of 215 children were found buried in unmarked graves under an area on which Kamloops Indian Residential School stood in British Columbia, which closed in 1978.

The residential school, tied to the Catholic Church, was part of a national system overseen by the Canadian government and churches that tried to assimilate indigenous communities of Canada. 

Soon after, an additional 751 unmarked graves were located near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which was also under the Catholic Church administration.

Last week, news emerged of the discovery of 182 human remains in unmarked graves near the site of the former Catholic-run St. Eugene's Mission School in Cranbrook, British Columbia.

According to reports, more than 150,000 First Nations children attended state-funded Christian schools. They were reportedly forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. 

Since backlash over the graves began, at least nine Catholic and Anglican churches across Canada have gone up in flames, Fox News reports.  Last month, at least four churches located in indigenous territory in British Columbia were damaged or destroyed by fires authorities believe to have been suspicious in nature. 

Chief Keith Crow of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band told local media that he adamantly opposed the destruction of the churches, referring to the incidents as “heartbreaking” since members of his tribes belonged to the congregations.

“Luckily, no one was injured and the fire here was contained before it spread to any of the neighbouring homes,” Crow told The Vancouver Sun in an interview last month.

“If you’re hurting at this time, please reach out to somebody and make the call. There is a lot of upset people.”

In response to the discovery of the unmarked graves, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an apology that expressed commitment to “walking side by side with Indigenous Peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future.”

“The news of the recent discovery is shocking. It rekindles trauma in numerous communities across this land. Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” stated the CCCB.

“We lift up prayers to the Lord for the children who have lost their lives and pledge our close accompaniment of Indigenous families and communities.”  

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