The RCMP officers in B.C. investigating two on-reserve church fires over the weekend say they’re sending surveillance video obtained at one of the fires to be enhanced.
According to Sgt. Jason Bayda of the Penticton South Okanagan Similkameen detachment, the police have a video “that shows a dark coloured pick-up truck showing up to Sacred Heart Church just prior to the fire and leaving just prior to the fire starting.
“The video at this point is not clear enough to say what make or model of the vehicle is other than it’s a dark pick-up truck.”
The church was built in 1911 and used to be attached to the Indian day school until that building was burned down in the mid-1960s, according to Adam Eneas, hereditary chief with the Okanagan Nation and who used to be a student at the day school.
Eneas said he sees the burning of the church as a “very tragic loss” for the PIB community.
The RCMP isn’t clear how long it will take for the video to be enhanced.
Bayda said an officer patrolling the area was the first to see one of the fires that the Sacred Heart Church at 1:22 a.m.
“He saw a fire coming from the steeple of Sacred Heart Church and because of that made his way there. He found a rear door open, he tried to make his way in in case someone was inside and yelled inside a few times but didn’t hear anyone unfortunately the flames were too intense.”
PIB Chief Greg Gabriel says it’s not yet known what caused the fire, and PIB is participating in the investigation. He said they are working to salvage items from the rubble — such as art by Clint George, a PIB member, and the church bell.
The fires come less than one month after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation in B.C. announced the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. It operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
Gabriel said the news of the unmarked graves rippled through the community.
“If this [fire] was determined to be deliberate, our leadership certainly doesn’t condone those kinds of actions or behaviour,” Gabriel said. “I think there could have been better ways to deal with this church.”
The other fire was at Saint Gregory’s church on Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver, B.C. about 45 kms to the south of Penticton.
The RCMP got a call from fire department at 3:10 a.m. and the church was already burnt to the ground when officers arrived.
“When we arrived on scene the building was fully involved and had collapsed … it was just a pile of rubble on fire,” said Oliver Fire Chief Bob Graham.
While the exact cause hasn’t yet been confirmed, Graham says “it is extremely suspicious,” adding there was “some indication of accelerant … some liquid around the area that was flammable.”
Police said they are liaising with both the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands as part of the investigation into the church fires.
With files from Athena Bonneau, IndigiNews and the Canadian Press