WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
In a barren field of sagebrush alongside a road through the Osoyoos Indian Band, Chief Clarence Louie stands atop a concrete pad and surveys the rubble in front of him.
This used to be the front entrance to St. Gregory’s, the simple wooden church that hosted countless community celebrations, dinners and religious services, on the reserve just north of the Canada-U.S. border in central B.C.
The church had stood for more than one hundred years as a symbol of the Catholic faith, but on June 21, 2021, someone burned it to the ground.
Louie recalled being forced to go to the church as a child to learn the word of God. He didn’t like it.
“We were heathens, right?” he said from the church steps. “We were savages. We had to come in here and have the white man save our souls. That’s what we were taught.”
While he doesn’t hide his contempt for Catholicism, he’s angry that someone torched St. Gregory’s, which was the second church that burned that night. Hours earlier, someone also set fire to the Sacred Heart Church on the Penticton Indian Band about 40 kilometres north of Osoyoos.
“I was upset that some rez punks did arson,” he told CBC News, pointing the finger directly at local youth from area reserves, including his own.
“I don’t think white people came here and burned this down.”
No one has ever been charged in either the Osoyoos or Penticton fires.
Other communities in Western Canada, including some First Nations, also have been impacted by the fires. CBC News has examined 33 Canadian churches that burned to the ground since May 2021. Just two were ruled accidental.
Investigators have determined that 24 were deliberately set while others are still under investigation. Some researchers and community leaders suggest Canada’s colonial history and recent discoveries of potential burial sites at former residential schools may have lit the fuse.
A revelation in Kamloops
In May 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops, B.C., released a statement revealing that researchers found 215 anomalies in the ground outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Leaders said they believed they were unmarked graves belonging to Indigenous children forced to attend the school.
Louie grew up at a time when others from his reserve were taken to the school, which was run by the Catholic Church until 1969. It’s estimated more than 150,000 children were sent to the schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997.
In addition to the schools, Catholic missionaries in the early 1900s built churches like St. Gregory’s on reserves throughout Canada, and priests and nuns were sent to teach the Catholic faith to Indigenous people.
While many became devoted followers, today there are deep divisions regarding the role the church played in setting up residential schools.
At the outset of the church fires, many Indigenous and political leaders were quick to blame unresolved anger over the situation.
“To burn things down is not our way,” Perry Bellegarde said in July 2021. At the time, he was the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “Our way is to build relationships and come together.”
That month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also commented on the fires, saying, “The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop.”
But it hasn’t stopped.
A rash of fires in churches
In the weeks after the announcement in Kamloops, 11 churches in western Canada were burned to the ground in cases determined to be arson by investigators.
CBC News examined police and court records along with media reports and found 33 fires that destroyed churches in Canada from May 2021 until December 2023.
Just two of those fires were found to be accidental. Investigators confirmed 24 fires were deliberately set, while the others were either deemed suspicious or are still under investigation.
Fourteen fires took place on reserves and First Nations and 13 were in small or rural towns.
About half the fires CBC News examined involved Catholic churches, but there were fires at churches for other denominations, including evangelical Christian, United and Anglican.
Most of the fires remain unsolved. Of the 33 major church fires since 2021, just nine have led to arrests. In those where charges have been laid, police say no clear motive has been established.
Alberta RCMP also charted a significant rise in overall arson attacks on church properties in the province.
These figures are limited to the areas of Alberta under the jurisdiction of the RCMP and include all cases involving arson and attempted arson at churches.
Cpl. Troy Savinkoff, with the Alberta RCMP said although there are “potential motivators” police are aware of, they haven’t been able to draw any conclusions.
“It would appear that the motivations for these individuals thus far are as varied as the people themselves,” he said in an interview with CBC News. “They come from all walks of civil life, many different backgrounds.”
Paulina Johnson, a scholar and researcher at the University of Alberta from the First Nation of Maskwacis about 100 km south of Edmonton, says she understands why some of the fires have continued to happen.
“It’s on fire because no one’s really addressing the truth,” she told CBC News in an interview.
“This isn’t to say that the arsons and the fires are justified, but it speaks to a bigger symbolic reality.”
Johnson argues that Indigenous people who have long been silenced are reaching out, sometimes in destructive ways.
“It gives them a voice. Because for the longest time, Canada hasn’t really actually acknowledged us.”
Cases before the courts
Many of the cases that resulted in charges continue to wind their way through the courts.
That includes one involving two men, ages 19 and 26, who were charged following a fire that completely destroyed the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, a historic landmark overlooking the remote northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan. The two will face trial in spring 2024.
Two men in their 50s were charged in a fire that destroyed St. Bernard’s church near the Kapawe’no First Nation in Alberta. Their trial will be held in May 2024.
An 18-year-old man was charged in a series of arson and vandalism attacks on six churches near the central Alberta town of Ponoka in early 2023. The teen and another youth charged in the attacks both entered guilty pleas to multiple counts of mischief, though they never explained their actions in court records.
St. Michael’s, a historic church built in 1910 in the community of Bashaw, was destroyed in the attacks, while the other churches sustained minor damage.
The 18-year-old was sentenced in August to two years of community service and six months of probation.
Some of the fires appear to be unrelated to any animus toward the church.
The fire that destroyed the St. George Coptic Church in Surrey, B.C., in 2021 was set by a 35-year-old woman who blamed a conflict with her boyfriend, drug use and mental illness, according to court documents. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
A community’s grief
The feature that set Morinville, Alta., apart from similar prairie towns was the dominating presence of St. Jean Baptiste church.
Built in the 19th century French ecclesiastical style, its giant bell tower instilled a sense of grandeur on the town’s main street.
The first mass was held there on New Year’s Day 1908.
On June 30, 2021, it was reduced to a smouldering pile of ash and brick.
The fire, which started in the middle of the night, was immediately considered suspicious by RCMP.
Ron Cust, the community’s former fire chief, helped sift through the ruins.
As a former provincial fire investigator he was keen to find the cause of the fire. But as an active member of the local church community, he also wanted to salvage historic artifacts.
“We were able to retrieve what we could, but the structure had burned so hot that I couldn’t even find a piece of the pew,” he told CBC News.
No one has ever been charged for the fire, but Cust says parishioners aren’t looking to assign blame.
“Why would we single out one part of a community and target them for it?” Cust said. “We know that what happened was wrong.”
Instead they’re focused on rebuilding.
Bringing back the bells
Among material salvaged from the ashes of St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville were the bells that hung from the steeple for more than a century.
Noreen Radford, chair of the local parish council, said the bells used to ring on the hour. “It was something stable that the community really enjoyed.”
The Catholic faith still runs deep in the town of 10,000 located just north of Edmonton. Sunday services, which normally attract more than 200 people, have moved to a school gymnasium.
Not ideal, says Radford, noting people miss the church.
“Even though we say it’s just a building, it has a significance in both our parish community and the community at large.”
Immediately after the fire, church leaders began fundraising. They plan to break ground on a new church in the spring with a goal of hearing the church bells ring again in December 2025. Just in time for Christmas.
Other communities aren’t as keen to rebuild.
On the Osoyoos Indian Band, a small group of Catholic followers now meet Sundays at the band council office. Not enough to warrant a church to replace St. Gregory’s, says Louie.
“Even if we did build it, punks would come and burn it down again, probably.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.