Churches set ablaze as more unmarked children's graves found at a third site in Canada

A family walks through a field where flags and solar lights now mark the site where human remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School site on Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan on June 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

OTTAWA (AFP) - Two churches in Canada went up in flames on Wednesday (June 30) amid calls for a papal apology over abuse at indigenous residential schools where hundreds of unmarked graves were recently discovered, including 182 at a third burial site.

Police said the fires at the Morinville church north of Edmonton, Alberta, and the St Kateri Tekakwitha Church on Sipekne'katik First Nation near Halifax in Nova Scotia are being investigated as possible arson.

"We are investigating it as suspicious," Royal Canadian Mounted Police Corporal Sheldon Robb told AFP, speaking on the fire that gutted the Morinville church.

Corporal Chris Marshall of the Nova Scotia RCMP said the same about the fire that severely damaged the St Kateri Tekakwitha Church.

At a news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the "horrific discoveries" of childrens' unmarked graves has forced Canadians "to reflect on the historic and ongoing injustices that Indigenous peoples have faced."

He urged all to participate in reconciliation, while denouncing vandalism and arson of churches across the country.

"The destruction of places of worship is not acceptable, and it must stop," he said. "We must work together to write past wrongs. Everyone has a role to play."

The blazes bring to eight the number of churches across Canada destroyed or damaged by suspicious fires, most of them in indigenous communities, in recent days.

Several others were vandalised, including with red paint.

Also Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band said experts using ground penetrating radar mapping have located what are believed to be the remains of 182 pupils aged seven to 15 at the former St Eugene's Mission School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.

The grim development follows the discovery of remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May and 751 more unmarked graves at another school in Marieval in Saskatchewan last week.

More searches of burial sites across Canada have also been launched.

The Lower Kootenay Band said a search of the Cranbrook site, where the Catholic Church operated a school on behalf of the federal government from 1912 until the early 1970s, was started last year.

Some of the graves were as shallow as three to four feet deep, it said.

They are believed to be the remains of members of bands of the Ktunaxa nation, which includes the Lower Kootenay, and other neighboring indigenous communities.

'Cultural genocide'

No direct link has officially been made between the church fires and the discovery of the unmarked graves.

But speculation is rampant, amid intense anger and sadness triggered by the burial finds.

"We absolutely recognise the profound effect the discoveries of the unmarked graves have had on First Nations people, and investigators will bear that in mind," Marshall said.

The damaged churches were built a century ago, coinciding with the opening of boarding schools set up by the government and run by the Catholic church to assimilate indigenous peoples into the mainstream.

Until the 1990s, some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youngsters were forcibly enrolled in 139 of these schools, where students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

More than 4,000 died of disease and neglect in the schools, according to a commission of inquiry that concluded Canada had committed "cultural genocide."

Trudeau last Friday apologised for the "harmful government policy" and joined a chorus of indigenous leaders' calls for Pope Francis come to Canada to apologise for abuses at the schools.

The flag atop parliament has been lowered to commemorate the pupils' deaths, and will remain at half-mast for Canada's national day on July 1, he said.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 tribes in Saskatchewan, meanwhile pressed the church to fulfil its promise to provide Can$25 million (S$25 million) in compensation to former students.

The church so far has raised and handed over just Can$34,650, it said in a statement.

"For Catholics to raise millions to build multiple multi-million-dollar cathedrals and raise only $34,650 or $0.30 per survivor is shameful," the FSIN said a statement.

FSIN chiefs also renewed calls for "a proper (papal) apology" to the students, referred to as residential school survivors in Canada.

The organisation of Catholic Bishops of Canada said a delegation of indigenous peoples, including former residential school students, has been invited to travel to the Vatican in December to meet with Pope Francis.

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