Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The remains of the old Fort Chipewyan church (The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church) is pictured after being burnt down following the truth scanning preparation ceremony this week in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on Aug. 25, 2022.crystal mercredi/The Globe and Mail

The word “epidemic,” once limited to describing the spread of disease, has evolved both colloquially and formally as a label for all sorts of deleterious activities that have become widespread. Gender-based violence is an epidemic, according to the federal government and various municipalities. So, too, is opioid and other drug addiction, as described by the government’s standing committee on health. Loneliness is an epidemic, says the National Institute on Aging. Even the issue of car theft in Canada has been called an “epidemic” by various media outlets.

It’s a rhetorical flourish: a way to convey impact and severity with a single word, invoking a sense of urgency to act.

If the context was different – different target, different backstory, different collection of alleged perpetrators – the arson attacks on Catholic churches across Canada over the past three years would qualify as an “epidemic.” Human-rights activists would gather at Parliament Hill, waving signs listing the names of the two dozen churches that have been completely destroyed by confirmed arson attacks since May, 2021 (according to a tally by right-wing media outlet True North, 47 have been damaged by fire – many under suspicious circumstances – and another 53 have been vandalized). Politicians from all parties would rise in the House to condemn the attacks. Canadians would demand an inquiry, and the government would appoint a special representative/envoy/rapporteur to liaise with communities and report back.

There would almost certainly be a robust national response if mosques or synagogues were being set ablaze, rather than churches. But Christians in Canada aren’t generally seen as a persecuted minority (though having their places of worship burned down arguably constitutes some level of persecution). Plus, the backstory here is fraught: The fires began following reports of unmarked graves at former church-run residential-school sites. Add in some uncomfortable social politics – in at least some of the cases, the suspected arsonists are Indigenous – and what otherwise might be labelled a national “epidemic” has mostly gone ignored.

Earlier this month, the pastor at Regina’s Blessed Sacrament Parish posted surveillance footage of a man attempting to set the church ablaze. Saskatoon-University MP Corey Tochor sought unanimous consent in the House to condemn the act, but he was denied. Last year, after two churches were burned down in his riding, Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen made multiple attempts to pass a motion at the standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs to condemn the acts. He, similarly, was denied.

We don’t know that every act of church arson or vandalism over the past three years was a calculated expression of retribution against the Catholic Church. For one, the story of the unmarked graves at residential-school sites has become more convoluted; at the vast majority of reported sites, no actual remains have been found so far (which is not to say that children didn’t die under horrific circumstances at these schools). But the fires have nevertheless continued. Four Alberta churches burned down in December; police are investigating them as arson cases.

Many of the individuals charged in the alleged vandalism or suspicious fires at various churches appear to be affected by issues such as homelessness, substance use and youth lawlessness, which suggests that, as with most social epidemics, there is no single root cause. But the effect is more straightforward: communities lose their places of worship, and individuals lose the feeling of security they ought to enjoy at the place where they choose to practise their faith. Churches, like any religious spaces, are not mere structures; rather, they function as symbols of their communities. That’s why, when they are attacked, the entire religious group – and not just specific parishioners or congregants – feels victimized.

It’s no mystery why certain political leaders or social activists might be reluctant to condemn the church attacks. We are in an era where perceived power hierarchies govern dogma, and where people and institutions are slotted into immovable categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” And who wants to be seen defending the big, powerful church over those who have been historically marginalized? (An inconvenient fact here is that some of the destroyed churches were located in First Nations, and had Indigenous congregants.)

Certainly, the Catholic Church in Canada as an institution is responsible for a number of serious historical wrongs for which it has and must continue to be held to account. But that’s the job of the courts, law enforcement and various levels of government – not individuals with jerry cans.

It ought to be uncontroversial – easy, even – to condemn three years of violence targeting a particular religious group. Yet when our leaders are asked for little more than words of censure, they buckle.

This isn’t simply an epidemic with no proposed solutions. This is one that those in power are pretending not to see.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe