British Columbia

B.C. Catholic bishop calls for patience amid waves of church burnings, vandalism

Gregory Bittman, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nelson, asks people to wait for detailed analyses following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked grave sites around former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Bishop Bittman in Nelson asks public to wait for further research into unmarked graves

Gregory Bittman, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nelson, B.C., calls for patience amid waves of arson and vandalism on churches following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves around former residential schools in B.C. and Sasketchewan. (Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A Roman Catholic bishop based in B.C.'s West Kootenay region is urging Canadians not to jump to conclusions about unmarked graves near former residential schools for Indigenous children in the wake of arson and vandalism against churches across the province.

Bishop Gregory Bittman of the Diocese of Nelson — who oversees Roman Catholic churches across the Kootenays and the Okanagan region — made the plea a week after 182 unmarked grave sites were discovered in the vicinity of a former residential school near Cranbrook, B.C.

On the same day the Ktunaxa First Nation announced the discovery of graves on June 30, the Cathedral of Mary Immaculate in Nelson, B.C., was vandalized with orange paint on its exterior.

Bittman says those buried in the unmarked graves may also include staff members of the schools — and he asks people to patiently wait for results of the grave site analysis. 

The Cathedral of Mary Immaculate in Nelson, B.C., was vandalized with orange paint on June 30. (Nelson Cathedral/Facebook)

"It's coming out quite clear now tuberculosis, for example, was rampant around that time, and we know that there was overcrowding in the school. We know that they were poor, they didn't have proper food, the buildings were not up to snuff … all these kinds of things could have contributed to the deaths of the children or even the people that were there.

"My understanding is that it could even be staff members that worked at the school that could be buried there. It could be Indigenous people that lived around the community [and] who lived around the area that might be buried there.

"Let's wait and see and then deal with whatever we need to deal with, but not jump to conclusions and wild speculations about what's there and what has happened to them," the bishop said on Wednesday.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, says Bittman's remarks are "offensive" and "misleading" because they minimize the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, says Bishop Gregory Bittman's remarks minimize the horror of human rights violations on former residential school children. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"We know that they [the residential school children] were malnourished. We know that there were no quarantine protocols in place to protect and safeguard them from tuberculosis," Phillip said Friday. 

"That somehow we need to wait for further evidence that there was something untoward in regard to these unmarked graves…I find [this] to be totally offensive and disregarding the horror of what this represents in terms of the complete violation and brutal denial of [children's] fundamental human rights to be properly taken care of." 

B.C. has witnessed a series of attacks on churches after the remains of at least 215 children were detected in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school for Indigenous children in Kamloops. 

On June 21, two Catholic churches were burned down in South Okanagan. On June 26, two Catholic churches in the Similkameen region were destroyed by fire, two days after 751 unmarked graves were said to have been found at a cemetery near a former residential school in the Cowessess First Nation of Saskatchewan.

Two Anglican churches — one in Hazelton in northern B.C., and the other in Tofino on Vancouver Island — were set ablaze late last week.

A fire late on July 1 destroyed a 108-year-old Anglican church on Gitwangak First Nation land near New Hazelton in northern B.C. (Submitted by Chasity Daniels)

Bittman asks arsonists to stop because their actions are hurting people, including Indigenous Catholics.

"We're all moral human beings, we have emotions, but it's to do something constructive with the emotions, not destructive," he said. "It [the arson] just reinforces and continues the anger … it's not going to solve the issues."

Earlier this week, a group of residential school survivors called for an end to arson attacks on churches. 

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the attacks on churches: "It is a shame and indeed it is something that will prevent people who will seek solace in times of grief from being able to visit their own places of worship when they've been vandalized or burned."

Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie says he wants to see a criminal investigation into the Catholic church's involvement in residential schools.

"There's going to be more remains found at all these residential schools, and that calls for action.

"It's always been well documented the abuses that were done and the sexual side of things. I call it rape because that's what it was — many of these priests and nuns actually raped Native children, and yet none of them have ever been charged.

"Phony apologies are just that, they're just phony … and they need action, not just sympathy or apologies or prayers," Louie said Friday to Dominika Lirette, the guest host of CBC's Daybreak South.

Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie says he wants to see criminal investigation on the Catholic church's involvement in residential schools. (CBC)

Bittman says churches in his diocese have hired security guards and installed surveillance cameras to prevent arson.

"We're asking people to be vigilant, just to keep an eye out around the churches," he said.

Tap the link below to hear Chief Clarence Louie's interview on Daybreak South:

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 survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494. 

With files from Tom Popyk, Darren Major, Maryse Zeidler and Alex Migdal