British Columbia

2 more Catholic churches burned down in B.C.'s Interior

Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow says he received a call at about 4 a.m. PT that the Chopaka church was on fire. By the time he arrived about 30 minutes later, it had burned to the ground. 

Lower Similkameen Indian Band chief says church was important part of community

A fire destroyed the Chopaka church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band reserve in B.C. in the early hours of Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Submitted by Chief Keith Crow)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Two more Catholic churches on reserves in British Columbia's southern Interior burned down Saturday morning. 

Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow says he received a call at about 4 a.m. PT that the Chopaka church was on fire. By the time he arrived about 30 minutes later, it had burned to the ground. 

"I'm angry," Crow said. "I don't see any positive coming from this and it's going to be tough."

"It's devastating. You know, we do have a devout Catholic following here in our community," he said Monday to Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South. "I really don't want to see any separations in a community."

Crow said he later received a call from the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, near Hedley, telling him a church on that reserve had burned down as well. 

The Upper Similkameen Indian Band confirmed that St. Ann's Church was destroyed overnight. A representative for the band said officials are currently working with RCMP at the site of the fire. 

In a written statement, RCMP said both fires started within an hour of each other early Saturday morning. They said the Chopaka church fire had spread to nearby brush, but B.C. Wildfire crews were able to attend to it before it spread. 

'It's not just coincidence'

Crow said the fire in his community is still under investigation, adding that the fact it came on the heels of overnight fires that destroyed two other churches in the Okanagan earlier this week is suspicious. 

"There's got to be something more to it," he said. "It's not just coincidence." 

RCMP said they're treating Saturday's fires as suspicious, and investigating any possible links to the Okanagan church fires. 

"The investigations into the previous fires and these two new fires are ongoing with no arrests or charges," said Sgt. Jason Bayda with Penticton South RCMP. 

Anyone with information about the fires is asked to contact the Penticton RCMP detachment at 250-492-4300.

People in the community are very upset about the fire, Crow said.

Many of them are members of the Catholic Church, he said, and are still grappling with the news from last month that a preliminary scan uncovered the remains of as many as 215 children buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., about 200 kilometres north of Hedley. 

Earlier this week, the Cowessess First Nation said a preliminary scan discovered hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. 

'Mixed emotions'

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, previously told CBC News there are "mixed emotions" about the Catholic Church among Penticton Indian Band members.

Phillip said some members of the community have "an intense hatred for the Catholic Church in regard to the residential school experience."

Crow said he is taking part in a caravan of leaders, Indian residential school survivors, families and elders that will journey from Penticton to Kamloops on Saturday. 

Hundreds of people have planned to take part in the caravan, he said, showing the unity of the people throughout the region. 

"I feel good today for doing this, but I'm upset with the church being burned down last night," he said. 

The convoy was organized by the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

Anglican church also damaged by fire

A church in the Gitwangak First Nation was also damaged by fire early Saturday.

The steps of St. Paul's Anglican Church in Gitwangak, northwest of Smithers in northwestern B.C., were lit on fire, according to Gitwangak elected Chief Sandra Larin.

Larin said volunteer firefighters put out the fire quickly and damage was minimal. The all-wood structure was built by the community in the 1890s but now is vacant and not used by the community.

Larin said the building has a complex history. Some people were married in the church or held funerals for family members there. Others associated the church with residential school abuse.

"There was very mixed reactions," she said about the fire. "Emotions are very high right now but I think someone was angry enough to burn it down."

New Hazelton RCMP said they are treating the fire as suspicious and investigating if there are any connections to recent church fires in the South Okanagan.

Police are asking anyone with information to contact them. 

Meanwhile, Larin said she wants to see healing in the community.

"Tolerance is what's needed," she said. "Supporting each other no matter what side of the coin you're on."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at

With files from Daybreak South