Two churches destroyed by fire on PIB, OIB reserves on National Indigenous Peoples Day

PIB Chief: 'I am angry.'

Chelsea Powrie

UPDATE: 3:45 p.m.

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel says his community's reaction to the suspicious fire that burned down Sacred Heart Catholic Church on their land early Monday morning is complicated, but he does not condone arson.

"Although there's a lot of anger and hurt in our community, from the residential school survivors and elders, this type of action and behaviour certainly doesn't help. There are better ways to deal with it, if, in fact, this fire was deliberate," Gabriel said Monday afternoon, speaking to media in front of the burned shell of the church.

Sacred Heart went up in flames in the early hours of Monday morning, within an hour of another fire at St. Gregory's church on Osoyoos Indian Band land. RCMP are investigating.

Gabriel said many in his community are shaken and saddened by the loss of the historic church.

"This church has been here since 1912. And it's been a fixture within our community for that many years. Even though the church has its dark history and dark past, we're now seeing evidence of that, a lot of our community members were, you know, involved with services, and events in this church," Gabriel said.

"So, you know, [the burning] touched some of those community members in a hurtful way. I had many elders attend throughout the day who were attached to the church and they're hurt, but I do believe they understand."

He said there is deep anger in not just his own community but Indigenous communities nation-wide that has surfaced due to the discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School last month.

"There's anger in every community, and I am angry. And I will do whatever I can and within our leadership we'll do whatever we can within our power to make sure people are held accountable for that atrocity," Gabriel said.

"It has to be a criminal investigation because that evil act was criminal, there's no other explanation. And we need to work hard. Every leader across Canada needs to work hard and make sure those agencies, the Government of Canada and whoever else, are held accountable."

The Penticton Indian Band communications department also released a brief statement to media, noting the importance of the churches to the PIB and OIB communities and asking for the broader South Okanagan to let Indigenous community members grieve privately, calling it a "fresh wound that needs time to heal."

"We cannot speculate that the person(s) responsible had any connection to the Indigenous communities in our region, all we can do is to be there for one another in this unbelievably hard time," the news release reads.

UPDATE 2:35 p.m.

The South Okanagan RCMP says it “won’t speculate on a motive” for two church burnings overnight in the region.

Police say a Penticton RCMP officer was on patrol at 1:22 a.m. when he spotted fire coming from the Sacred Heart Church on Green Mountain Road in the PIB reserve. By the time he arrived at the scene, it was fully engulfed.

Then, at 3:10 a.m., the Oliver RCMP were called about a fire at the St. Gregory’s Church on Nk’mip Road on the OIB reserve.

Both Catholic churches burned to the ground and police are treating the fires as suspicious.

RCMP say their investigators are in close contact with the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands as they investigate.

“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” states Sgt Jason Bayda, Media Relations Officer for the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP. “We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”

Police are asking for anyone who may have witnessed anyone or any vehicle in the area of either church some time between the late hours of June 20 and early hours of June 21 to contact the Penticton RCMP Detachment at 250-492-4300.

UPDATE: 9:15 a.m.

There were two fires at churches on reserve land in the South Okanagan early Monday morning, National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Fire crews in Oliver were called to a church on Nk'Mip Road on Osoyoos Indian Band land just before 3 a.m. Penticton fire crews had responded to the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land at 1:30 a.m.

When crews in Oliver arrived, the church was fully engulfed.

"It appeared that it had been burning for some time because it was mostly just reduced to rubble," said OFD spokesperson Rob Graham.

"And so, our main focus was just to make sure that it would not spread into any of the desert sage or any of the trees that were nearby."

Graham said the church is in a fairly remote area of the Band's land, but there were other structures nearby that fire crews were worried could be affected should the church blaze spread.

He said the cause is unknown, but suspicious.

"I'm sure that there'll be some form of investigation, I'm sure that there is some significance to the two fires. But right now we're just making sure that we keep the fire out and from spreading any brushes," Graham.

ORIGINAL: 6:30 a.m.

A fire overnight in Penticton appears to have destroyed the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land.

The blaze erupted about 1:30 a.m. according to reader reports sent to Castanet.

Several posts on the Penticton Facebook group place the fire at the church on the PIB reserve.

It's not known what caused the fire, but it was reportedly out as of early this morning.

The fire comes as today marks National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, and as tensions are raised among First Nations following the discovery of 215 children's bodies at the former church-run residential school in Kamloops.

It also comes as Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, marked the day by calling on Canada to "repudiate the colonial processes, principles, and frameworks it continues to uphold, and to hold itself accountable for its legacy of colonialism, racism, and denial."

In a press release issued by the UBCIC, Phillip said: "Facing the difficulties of a pandemic, continued systemic discrimination, police harassment and brutality, violations of their human and Indigenous rights, and attempts from governments and corporations to usurp their jurisdiction over their lands and resources, particularly old growth forests, Indigenous peoples have fought against the oppressive tide of colonial forces and persevered.

"This year’s National Indigenous Peoples Day follows immense tragedy and grief – the confirmation by Tk’emlups te Secwépemc that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since the news broke out, there has been a rising number of Indian Residential School burial sites confirmed across the country. We take time today to acknowledge and mourn with all nations and peoples impacted by the reality of Canada’s brutal, genocidal actions. The long shadow cast by Canada’s historical attempts to extinguish Indigenous cultures and societies persists into the present, and we call on Canada to resolve the ongoing pain, trauma, and hurt that continues to be inflicted by practices of colonialism."

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