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Grave assumptions

Claims of mass burial sites in Canada spark rash of church arsons

St. Bernard Catholic Church in Grouard, Alberta Kyle Greenham/Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan

Grave assumptions
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Bernard Akum’s stomach lurched when he saw the urgent text: “Smoke is pouring out of the church!” An immediate second text announced the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were on-site and the fire department was trying to douse rapidly spreading flames. Akum’s mind raced. And so did he.

Panicked, the 41-year-old parish priest jumped into his car. Weaving in and out of traffic, he sped to St. Bernard Catholic Church in Grouard, a small hamlet in northern Alberta. Cars full of gawkers blocked his path, so he abandoned his vehicle and sprinted toward the church. Fueled by adrenaline and ignoring firefighters’ shouts, he dashed inside to grab items from the altar. He scrambled outside moments before the ceiling of the 121-year-old church collapsed.

“I wasn’t touched by any fire. I didn’t inhale any smoke. I feel like that was a miracle,” Akum tells me. As he describes that May morning seven months ago, he shakes his head as if still in awe over his narrow escape.

The next day, police arrested two men and charged them with arson. They were drunk and have so far refused to talk about why they set the church ablaze.

Akum has his suspicions. He believes St. Bernard was targeted—part of a long streak of crimes directed against mostly Catholic but also Protestant churches in Canada.

By July, arsonists and vandals had destroyed or damaged at least 83 sanctuaries across Canada over the course of two years, according to True North, the media arm of Calgary’s True North Centre for Public Policy. More churches have erupted in flames since then. Although not all incidents are connected, many began with a false claim that gained worldwide attention.

The fires started in June 2021, a month after the leader of a First Nations tribe in British Columbia claimed ground-penetrating radar had discovered 215 unmarked children’s graves at the now-shuttered, church-run Kamloops Residential Indian School. Soon, other First Nations tribes reported that radar had detected nearly 1,000 more unmarked graves at the sites of other boarding schools for Indian children on church properties. First Nations groups across Canada said these findings proved terrible abuse happened to children at the schools, where they say many vanished.

Zero human remains have been discovered so far at any of the residential schools where groups claimed ground-penetrating radar identified them.

In 2022, First Nations groups homed in on St. Bernard, which operated a residential school from 1880 to 1969. They said ground-penetrating radar found 169 unmarked children’s graves on the church-school grounds.

That’s why Akum believes the church was set aflame in May—retribution for assumed abuses of another era.

While arsonists have destroyed churches around Canada in the name of supporting the indigenous, many of the churches they’ve ruined are filled with people they say they’re trying to help. St. Bernard is no different: 90 percent of its congregation is indigenous.

“After the fire, many members came to me and said, ‘We are so sad this has happened to our dear church,’” said Akum, raising his hands in a gesture of puzzlement. “‘The residential schools were sometimes bad, but how can someone within our own community do this?’” A native of Cameroon, Akum didn’t expect to find such deep-seated emotions in the tiny Grouard community of fewer than 200 souls.

Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church near Redberry Lake, northwest of Saskatoon, burns on July 8, 2021.

Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church near Redberry Lake, northwest of Saskatoon, burns on July 8, 2021. Lynn Swystun/Facebook

THREE MONTHS after the St. Bernard fire, Chief Darren Nepinak of the Pine Creek First Nation made a startling admission on Facebook: Excavations hadn’t found any human remains at the Pine Creek Residential School, where ground-penetrating radar had previously pinpointed them. The ground anomalies turned out to be unrelated soil disturbances.

In fact, zero human remains have been discovered so far at any of the residential schools where groups claimed ground-penetrating radar identified them, said Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at Calgary University.

But the news came too late for St. Bernard and the other churches targeted by arsonists.

Flanagan refrains from saying, “I told you so.” He was one of the few academics and politicians who cautioned against making assumptions about what, exactly, the radar showed.

More than a year ago, Flanagan said claims of mass unmarked graves of indigenous children had created nationwide “moral panic” and “near hysteria.” He called such repeated reports “the biggest fake news story in Canadian history” because no hard evidence ­supported them.

The intense, gray-haired professor tells me many people were all too ready to believe the worst because universities and Liberal Party politicians continue to fan flames of guilt over past wrongs at the schools. Others joined in, often afraid to appear politically incorrect. Genuine wrongs and abuses occurred, he says, but other claims are unproven or exaggerated. Still, over the last 30 years, a narrative has grown that the schools were really dens of horror, abuse, and genocide. News of presumed unmarked graves seemed to confirm the narrative—and it spread like wildfire.

To prove his point, Flanagan recounts what happened within days of the first 2021 claim of mass graves: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered federal building flags flown at half-staff for a record-breaking five months. The government pledged another $40 ­billion to indigenous individuals and groups. It designated Sept. 30 as a new federal holiday: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

International headlines (including at WORLD) blared stories about the graves. The pope flew to Canada to apologize publicly on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and ask for God’s forgiveness.

Historically, the Catholic Church operated most of the more than 130 government-mandated residential schools, with several Protestant denominations overseeing many of the rest. The federal program ran from about 1883 to 1996. Roughly 150,000 indigenous children are estimated to have attended the schools, though Flanagan says that number has never been verified.

When Canada initiated the residential school program in the 1800s, politicians, churches, and educators embraced it as a progressive method to assimilate Native children into larger Western culture. Flanagan says many Indians wanted the government to help their children with education, food, and shelter, especially during harsh winters. But when stories of forced family separation, abuse, and missing children proliferated in the 1990s, the government changed its stance and started paying billions of dollars in reparations to all indigenous people affiliated in any way with the schools.

The 2021 announcements of burial site discoveries seemed to validate those stories of harm and disappearing children. Some activists called anyone who disagreed a “genocide denier.” Others started burning churches.

Canadian towns reporting church arson attacks

At least 83 Canadian churches reported damage due to fires or vandalism between July 2021 and July 2023, according to True North, a Canadian media outlet.

At least 83 Canadian churches reported damage due to fires or vandalism between July 2021 and July 2023, according to True North, a Canadian media outlet. Illustration by Krieg Barrie

ARNOLD VIERSEN is a conservative Member of Parliament from northern Alberta who lives near the sites of several arsons.

I caught up with him as he was hauling hay home for his cow. He pulled over to chat while his young son, Danny, one of his five children, sat ­quietly in the passenger seat. When Parliament isn’t in session, Viersen is an auto mechanic. He’s also friends with Bernard Akum, the parish priest.

“Although I may not agree with Catholic doctrine, I’m horrified by what happened to St. Bernard, the oldest church building in Alberta, and the many other affected churches,” says Viersen, an evangelical Christian. “I feel a need to defend the Church, defend Christianity, defend faith, because the whole issue has been another way to attack the Church.”

Less than an hour from Viersen’s hometown of Barrhead, Alberta, arsonists razed a 113-year-old church in Morinville in 2021. Only a smoldering pile of charred bricks and church bells remained. Alberta’s then-premier, Jason Kenney, called the fire a “criminal act of hate-inspired violence.” At his prodding last year, Alberta more than doubled funding for places of worship to beef up security, but many churches have yet to update their systems.

Since the initial flurry of reporting on the 2021 church fires, Viersen is ­disappointed but not surprised by the near lack of attention from the national media and from Trudeau on the ­ongoing problem. “When a mosque or synagogue gets spray-painted, it’s national news, repeated over and over,” he says, adding that it should never be OK to attack any house of worship.

Viersen is also chagrined by how the media jumped on the bandwagon when First Nations claimed they’d found unmarked graves. He notes it’s well known that churches and residential schools usually provided on-site cemeteries: “It’s not uncommon to find graves in a graveyard,” Viersen says with a grimace. He’s trying hard to be tactful.

Flanagan, too, speaks to incongruity: In years past, grave markers across Canada were often made of wood. They have long since disappeared at both residential school cemeteries and other Canadian cemeteries after years of brutal weather—leaving unmarked burial sites throughout the country that prove nothing about missing children.

The narrative of residential school deaths should be based on evidence, not conjecture, he insists. “Death rates were high in the Indian community. Many children were often brought to schools because they were orphans. Disease was prevalent, especially tuberculosis.” He and others say the claims that children’s deaths were suspicious—based on faulty assumptions from radar equipment—harmed the country. And churches paid the price.

Viersen agrees. “The Native people I represent just want to get on with their lives,” he says. “Their focus is on helping their communities … addressing issues like joblessness and drugs.” Many indigenous communities are fraught with alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, and other social problems. “That’s where our attention and resources should be,” Viersen adds.

Although the accusations of unmarked graves haven’t been proven, Viersen surmises the fires have continued anyway because criminals and ­mischief-makers now view churches as easy targets. Within a week of Chief Nepinak’s announcement about the lack of human remains, arsonists destroyed a Winnipeg Church of God sanctuary. It had no affiliation with ­residential schools.

Viersen illustrates church vulnerability with his own story of a woman in his hometown who tried to set a church ablaze. A witness took photos of her dousing the building with accelerant from a fuel container, then trying to light it. The witness quickly extinguished the flames while the woman jumped in a black SUV and fled. Law enforcement officials caught her the next day, but they do not believe her crime was politically motivated.

“People have simply found out they can often get away with attacking churches,” Viersen observes. “She was one who got caught. But whatever her—or others’—motivation, it seems like it’s become a ‘thing to do.’” He notes many of the churches are rural, still have inadequate security, and often can’t afford insurance.

Many of the recent church fires, though deemed arson, remain unsolved, with no known motive.

The Roman Catholic church at God’s Lake Narrows First Nation in northern Manitoba burns on May 6, 2022.

The Roman Catholic church at God’s Lake Narrows First Nation in northern Manitoba burns on May 6, 2022. Beverly James

AS IN THE UNITED STATES, no national government organization in Canada tracks crimes against churches. (The FBI tracks designated hate crimes against religious organizations.) Most information only can be gleaned through contact with local provincial fire marshals, police, or mounties or from community media reports. Officials won’t talk about ongoing investigations, but say no one has died in any church fires. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service declined to respond to information requests.

An Alberta mounted police spokesman did confirm the numbers of church arsons shot up to 30 in its province alone since the unmarked burial site claims in 2021. Just over one-third of those happened this year. In 2019 and 2020 combined, church fires tallied only seven.

Flanagan says the human remains story has dropped off the national media’s radar and the national political scene. Ditto for the ongoing church attacks. Most Canadians seem totally oblivious to the church arsons, Viersen says. Only a few church newsletters and conservative news sources have addressed the fires since 2021, despite this year’s surge.

Although First Nations groups loudly condemned the church burnings initially, they’ve made no public apologies since their excavations turned up nothing. A government representative said, “This does not negate the experiences and living memory of horrific abuse experienced by indigenous ­children in residential schools.”

Members of Parliament echoed that emphasis. In October, a federal parliamentary committee struck down a motion from Viersen condemning the church arsons and reaffirming freedom of religion and assembly. The motion also called for attackers to be brought to justice. But Liberal MP Jaime Battiste shut down debate, asserting the topic is “triggering” to many who attended residential schools.

First Nations groups aren’t doing further excavations now, but opinion is divided over whether they will continue to look for suspicious unmarked graves or stop disturbing ground they consider sacred. Impartial researchers are delving into church records to ­identify children who died—children some say simply disappeared.

Viersen doesn’t think the residential schools were ever a good idea because they separated families, but he says reports about them contain mixed reviews. Regardless, he roundly condemns the church burnings, as do many of the indigenous in his district.

That contrasts with Trudeau, who said in 2021 that burning churches is wrong, but “understandable.” He’s remained conspicuously silent since excavations failed to turn up human remains at the Pine Creek site.

Meanwhile, Canadian and provincial governments continue to pay ­reparations to First Nations and other indigenous groups. And Catholic churches and the Church of England periodically apologize anew for past harms at residential schools. Flanagan and a group of his colleagues continue to call for more evidence of abuses and thorough record-checking.

Some congregational leaders, including Bernard Akum, may never learn why arsonists targeted their churches. But Akum, being from a country governed at one time by the German, French, and British, says he understands the struggle between indigenous people and later arrivals.

And he knows those wounds can only be healed through forgiveness.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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