As more churches are set on fire or vandalized, observers note that the situation is getting out of hand and hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
Since the discovery of unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., at the end of May and heightened outrage over the deaths of children in residential schools, 21 churches have been lit on fire and another 32 have been vandalized as of mid-July.
Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian Churches participated in residential schools, but some of the churches set on fire were from other denominations, including Lutheran, Mennonite, Baptist, and Alliance.
On July 19, the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey, B.C., was destroyed by fire, even though its historic roots and dominant ethnicity is Egyptian.
Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, program director of Religious Freedom and Faith Community Engagement at Cardus, says the acts of arson haven’t been adequately condemned by political leaders.
“The response from the prime minister down through other political leaders has been weak or tepid at best, and the message that sends to Christians is that, well, you don’t really count, or maybe at worse, you somehow deserve this. And that is completely unacceptable,” Bennett, who served as Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom, said in an interview.
“I’ve been heartened to see how many members of other organizations have spoken out against what’s been happening. The Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, for example, issued a very strong condemnation of the burnings of churches and also spoke about these hate crimes. And certainly, some of the strongest expressions of frustration and anger have come from First Nations people themselves; these are their churches where they would gather for worship.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney condemned the torching of the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church. “They never imagined that they would experience the same hateful violence here in Canada, much like the Calgary congregations of African and Vietnamese refugees recently attacked by arsonists,” he wrote on Twitter.
“These hate crimes targeting Christians must stop.”
On June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Twitter decried the burning of two churches in B.C. in the early morning that day, saying, “Violent and destructive attacks against any faith group in Canada are completely unacceptable.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s only comment on the issue came at a press conference July 2, where he said it is “unacceptable and wrong that acts of vandalism and arson” were happening, but anger against the federal government and “the Catholic church … is fully understandable given the shameful history.”
Green Leader Annamie Paul spoke at a vigil June 8 after four Muslims were killed at a mosque in London, Ont., while Jagmeet Singh said regarding the killings that “Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people, and our country is a place where Muslims aren’t safe.”
Geoffrey Hale, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge, notices these leaders’ muteness on the church burnings.
“The double standard is alive and well,” he said, adding that “the First Nations leadership in many areas has shown a far greater degree of maturity than significant elements of Canada’s wider political leadership.”
When two Catholic churches burned down on Similkameen First Nations territory in B.C. June 26, band chief Keith Crow said, “I don’t condone this at all. I support all my members, regardless of their religion and what their beliefs are. I hope, in the long run, these individuals do get caught. This is unacceptable.”
Christopher Dummit, who teaches Canadian and historical studies at Trent University, said the attacks on churches are the result of an increasingly dishonest and inflammatory interpretation of history.
“We have gone from speaking, only 6 to 7 years ago, of harmful assimilation. Then we switched to ‘cultural genocide,’ which was just a more powerful way of describing assimilation. And now many, including even the council of the Canadian Historical Association, speak of full-on physical genocide. The inflationary language is well-intended but not rooted in real evidence,” Dummit said in an interview.
“The problem with all of this is that we’re changing the meaning of genocide and not being honest about it. It’s not surprising, though it is disgusting, that some people are taking it seriously, genuinely believing the new language means the same as the old and attacking churches in response.”
Real Women’s National Vice President Gwendolyn Landolt says that Ottawa failed to adequately fund the schools, let alone the burials of those who died, and is now also not addressing the church burnings.
“Trudeau … was trying to shrug off responsibility, because [in] the Truth and Reconciliation report which was published in 2015, he was given four calls for action to deal with the cemeteries. He didn’t do it. And in fact, the calls for action contained 94 recommendations, and very few have been carried out,” Landolt said in an interview.
“Trudeau [on July 21] had a one-day seminar on antisemitism, then he had one on Islamophobia, but the real problem seems to be the burning of the Catholic churches. Nothing on that. It is merely a Christian church, which doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as the other mosques or synagogues.”