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Op/Ed: MLA Roly Russell speaks to burning of churches

MLA Roly Russell agrees with Chief Jacobsen and others, that the burning of churches is not the way forward.

The discovery of over a thousand unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada, including many right here in B.C., has been a wake-up call. 

I feel saddened, enraged, disappointed, heartbroken, and much more. But I also know that the emotions non-Indigenous people like myself are feeling right now are just a fraction of the pain that so many Indigenous people are carrying.   

Protests, demonstrations, and marches have taken place across the country and I fully support peaceful protests and demonstrations - they are an integral part of democracy.

But the burning of churches is not the way forward. As we have tragically seen, fire destroys – completely and utterly.  

As a settler, I cannot fathom the pain and trauma that has been brought to the surface in recent months.  And it’s not my place to speak about how to manage that grief and anger.  However, I do also know that these churches represent not just the institution, but also local communities, and the dedication and love of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours. 

Jenn Allan-Riley, a daughter of a residential school survivor recently said, “We understand some people believe that they’re standing in solidarity with us Indigenous people as we find more graves across Canada. Burning down churches is not in solidarity with us Indigenous people.”

These spaces were built by community members and have been gathering places for decades.

The chiefs of all four Indigenous communities in our area – Penticton, Osoyoos, Lower Similkameen, & Upper Similkameen – have denounced these acts of arson, highlighting the fact that this creates division within communities and the wider Canadian public, and hurts much more than it heals. 

Voices like Allan-Riley, Chiefs Gabriel, Louie, Crow, and Jacobsen, and those of other Indigenous leaders and elders are the ones that we should be attentive to. 

But, I understand the need for reckoning, and an important step of the healing journey is an apology from the main institution that has not done so yet – the Catholic Church.  

Leaders from the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami will have an audience with the Pope in December of this year to again make the request; I certainly hope that we see an acknowledgement and a sincere apology at that time. 

Finally, I know there are many Catholic people feeling conflicted right now.  How can this dark history and a lack of apology be reconciled with the teachings of the church?

I believe we all have the ability, right, and duty to work with our leaders and help create a future where the institutions that we care about act in a way that we can all be proud of. 

So, I urge people to continue calling on the Church for a meaningful apology and concrete steps to make amends.

This anger that many are feeling could also be productively directed towards pushing the church to release all their records, as some have recently agreed to do. 

For those that have now lost their church, on top of the unfathomable grief of losing their communities’ children, I am so sorry and wish I had better words to convey my sympathies.  But as was said by Chief Jacobsen and others, the burning of churches is not the way forward. 

These acts serve to create further divisions and we can only work towards meaningful and lasting reconciliation when we come together. 

Roly Russell is the MLA for Boundary-Similkameen and Parliamentary Secretary of Rural Development