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RCMP investigating 'suspicious' fires that burned down two B.C. Catholic churches

Two Catholic churches were burned down Monday in the same Canadian province where late last month the remains of 215 bodies of children were found at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Photo by Murray Foubister/Flickr
Two Catholic churches were burned down Monday in the same Canadian province where late last month the remains of 215 bodies of children were found at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Photo by Murray Foubister/Flickr

June 22 (UPI) -- Canada's national police service said two Roman Catholic churches on First Nations land were burned down by fires they consider "suspicious."

The fires were spotted early Monday, which was National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, and in the province of British Columbia where less than a month ago the discovery of remains of hundreds of children buried at a former Indian Residential School reignited the nation's anger over Canada and the Catholic Church's treatment of indigenous people.

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Sgt. Jason Bayda, Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman for the region of Penticton South Okanagan, said Monday in a statement that both wooden churches burned to the ground.

"Police are treating the fires as suspicious," he said.

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The first fire at the Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land was spotted by an officer at around 1:20 a.m., he said, while the St. Gregory's Church on Osoyoos Indian Band land was discovered at 3:10 a.m.

The two churches are separated by some 27 miles.

"Should our investigations deem these fires arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative actions," Bayda said. "We are sensitive to the recent events but won't speculate on a motive."

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The fires came after the Tk'emlupste Secw├ępemc First Nation said late last month it discovered the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969 before it was taken over by the Canadian government until it was finally shuttered in 1978.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission report published in 2015 said based on records the death toll at the school had only been 51.

The commission said there were 139 residential schools nationwide that were conducted on a policy that "can be best described as 'cultural genocide,'" resulting in the deaths of 4,100 children it had been able to verify though the number is believed to be as high as 6,000

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Canada first apologized to its indigenous citizens over running the residential schools in 2008 but despite repeated calls to do so the Catholic Church has yet to offer an apology.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, called on the church to offer its apology following the recent discovery, but Pope Francis only expressed his "sorrow" and "closeness to the Canadian people" over the tragedy.

Standing before the charred Sacred Hearts Church on Monday, Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel said his community is angry over the discovery of the remains but they do not condone the destruction of the church, Penticton Western News reported.

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"I understand there is a lot of anger in our community with the discovery of those 215 innocent, poor children's graves," he said. "There is a lot of hurt. But this type of action doesn't help if in fact it is found to be deliberate."

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