Statue
A defaced statue of Queen Elizabeth II lies after being toppled during a rally outside the provincial legislature in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, July 1, 2021. © Reuters / Shannon VanRaes

Statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria were torn down by protesters in Winnipeg, Canada.

The latest acts of protests followed a spree of attacks on Catholic churches built on First Nation lands. At least seven churches have caught fire in recent weeks, since the grim discovery of more than 1,100 unmarked graves at sites where Catholic-run residential schools used to operate.

The attacks are believed to be retaliation to historic abuses of indigenous children in church-run schools.

Tensions ran especially high on Canada Day, celebrated on Thursday, and at least 10 Calgary churches were defaced with red spray-paint, some marked with the words “We were children” and “Our lives matter.”

While the Canadian government now acknowledges the widespread boarding school abuses, the Catholic Church has never formally apologized for what many indigenous people see as acts of cultural and physical genocide.

Amid growing calls from activists for the Vatican to acknowledge its role in the ill-treatment of native children, Pope Francis agreed to meet with representatives of the First Nations leaders later this year.

So far there have been no apologies, and the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, said on Wednesday that his group was given no guarantee that the visit would result in “any kind of apology” or that Francis would travel to Canada to address indigenous people himself.

More than half of Canada’s residential schools between 1831 and 1996 were run by the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth and Victoria Statues Toppled

Protesters tore down several statues at the Manitoba legislature, including a bust of Queen Elizabeth II, during a heated rally on Canada Day, venting outrage over the discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous school children.

The activists gathered near the legislative building, located in the provincial capital, Winnipeg, to protest on Thursday, at one point descending on a nearby monument to Queen Elizabeth II and yanking it to the ground.

In addition to Elizabeth, a larger statue of the late Queen Victoria was also destroyed, pulled onto its side and defaced with red spray paint as activists cheered. That toppling was captured on video, after which activists left a sign reading, “We were children once. Bring them home” on top of the century-old statue, first unveiled in 1904.

While police made one arrest after the statues were brought down, the exact circumstances remain unclear, with the CBC reporting that the man may have shown up to criticize the protesters’ actions. No other arrests were made, though police in Winnipeg say their investigation is ongoing and that further action would be taken later.

The protesters, who reportedly numbered in the hundreds, headed for the legislature as part of the “Every Child Matters” rally. The event was held to protest the dark legacy of Canada’s indigenous boarding school system after the remains of hundreds of children were discovered in unmarked graves in recent weeks.

Children Died of Abuse and Neglect

Often run by the Catholic Church, many of the schools forcibly enrolled indigenous children under government mandates, aiming to assimilate native tribes even before Canada’s confederation in 1867.

Children were taken from their families and were stripped of their cultural identities to hasten “integration,” many dying of abuse and neglect. The fate of countless indigenous students remains unknown, however, with the grim gravesite discoveries highlighting the massive scale of the abuses.

More Than 1 Thousand Unmarked Graves

Indigenous Children Buried Canada
Flags mark the spot where the remains of over 750 children were buried at former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, June 25 © AFP / GEOFF ROBINS

Canada Day came less than 24 hours after 182 unmarked graves were found in Kamloops, British Columbia, while 215 more were discovered last month at another school in the same town. Last week, 751 gravesites were found at yet another school in western Saskatchewan.

The 182 graves were found via underground radar-imaging in British Columbia, with the discovery announced hours after the fire in Morinville. This is the third such discovery in the past two months near former Catholic schools.

The burial site is located at the former Catholic-run St. Eugene’s Mission School, the Lower Kootenay Band announced on Wednesday.

The community of ʔaq’am – or St. Mary’s Indian Band – based near the city of Cranbrook made the gruesome find after using radar detection equipment, which apparently pointed to there being graves around a meter below the surface.

Last week, 751 unmarked graves were uncovered at a Catholic school in Saskatchewan province, another indigenous community announced.

That discovery came after the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at another Catholic school in British Columbia in May.

St. Eugene’s, now a casino and resort, was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 until the 1970s, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up to document the history of indigenous students in Canadian schools.

The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre said the school was hit by frequent outbreaks of influenza, mumps, measles, chickenpox, and tuberculosis.

As many as 100 people from the Lower Kootenay Band had been forced to attend the institution, the group said.

“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member Bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, neighboring First Nations communities and the community of ʔaq’am,” the community said in a statement.

More than 150,000 indigenous children were required to attend Catholic-run state schools in Canada from the 1870s until 1997.

In 2015, a report by the commission said the government’s forced assimilation of indigenous students and the system itself could “best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’”

Each find has fueled outrage among native communities and other Canadians, prompting calls to ‘cancel’ patriotic Canada Day celebrations altogether.

Catholic Churches Face Arson

Some have apparently gone to more extreme lengths to protest the gravesites, as Catholic churches around the country have faced a spree of arson attacks. While police have not determined a motive in every incident, some are suspected to be linked to the indigenous grave discoveries.

A historic Alberta church has been destroyed in what many suspect to be the latest arson attack in a string of retaliations for the historic abuse of Canada’s indigenous community by the Catholic Church.

The St. Jean Baptiste church in the town of Morinville was almost entirely destroyed by the fire, which broke out on Wednesday morning. By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, its interior had already begun to collapse, and its basement had been engulfed by flames. Hours later, only a few fragments of its walls remained standing.

Morinville is a community of some 10,600 people about 30km north of Alberta province’s capital, Edmonton. Many had viewed the church as an essential part of the town’s life and legacy – its “heart and soul”, in the words of Mayor Barry Turner. Its construction was completed in 1907 and it was named in honor of Father Jean-Baptiste Morin, who led several Francophone families to the area from Quebec in 1891 and also lent his name to the town itself.

The city authorities decided to cancel Morinville’s Canada Day celebrations on Thursday in the wake of the fire.

St. Jean Baptiste’s is at least the seventh Catholic Church built on First Nation lands across Canada where fire has broken out recently. Officials described the latest blaze as “suspicious,” and many see it as the next link in a chain of hate-motivated attacks.

The crimes are suspected to be connected to the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at sites where Catholic-run residential schools operated in the last century.

The system of boarding schools for First Nation children is now perceived as an oppressive and deadly government-backed attempt to eradicate the culture of native Canadians.

Some 50 people were evacuated from a former convent located near the burned church that has been converted into residential apartments. The building was damaged by smoke and water as fire brigades from several neighboring towns worked in shifts to contain the blaze.

The Alberta government last week offered financial assistance to religious and cultural organizations that wanted to upgrade their security systems. A suggestion to set up patrols and initiate other protection measures also came from the province’s native community. Grand Chief Arthur Noskey said the offer was not only about helping their Catholic neighbors, but also about digging to the bottom of the injustices his people had suffered.

Two Catholic churches fires were reported on Saturday morning, consuming the Lady of Lourdes Church in Chopaka and St. Ann’s Church in Hedley, some 60km away. St. Ann’s is on land belonging to the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, and Chopaka is in Lower Similkameen territory.

Both buildings were made of wood, over 100 years old, and served as meeting places and for Catholic members of the two tribes as well as the surrounding communities.

“This is not justice for what has happened to our people. This is stupidity by some individuals!” Rose Holmes from Hedley, a tribe member, told the local news outlet Castanet.

Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow told CBC that he received a call informing him that the Chopaka church was on fire around 4am on Saturday, and that it was completely gone by the time he got there, half-an-hour later.

“I am angry,” Crow said. “I do not see any positive coming from this and it is going to be tough.”  

He thinks the fires are “are not just coincidence,” after flames also claimed St. Gregory’s Church in Osoyoos and Sacred Heart Church in the Penticton Indian Band territory last Monday.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is investigating the fires as possible arson, but no arrests have been made so far.

Osoyoos and Penticton leaders have condemned the destruction of churches in their territory as well.

Tribal leaders are concerned that some members of their communities might be consumed by anger over the discovery of mass graves at two sites in Canada over the past month.


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