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Separate fires destroy two Catholic churches in southern British Columbia

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OLIVER, B.C. — A First Nations chief in southern British Columbia says there are mixed feelings in his community after a Catholic church burned to the ground in an overnight fire, one of two Catholic churches in the area that were destroyed in blazes that police consider suspicious.

Chief Greg Gabriel of the Penticton Indian Band said the Sacred Heart Church was a community fixture that hosted weddings and funerals but many people also feel pain due to the Roman Catholic Church’s role operating abusive residential schools.

“There’s a lot of anger, a lot of hurt in every First Nations, Indigenous community throughout Canada,” he said, adding that he was not speculating on the cause of the fire.

Sacred Heart is one of two churches in the area that were destroyed by fires early Monday morning.

Less than two hours after a patrol officer found it engulfed in flames, RCMP said a second fire was reported at St. Gregory’s Church on the Osoyoos Indian Band reserve lands near Oliver, B.C.

RCMP said in a statement they are investigating both fires as suspicious.

“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” Sgt. Jason Bayda said in the statement.

“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”

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 and he wants to see those responsible held criminally accountable.

Police said they are liaising with both the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands as part of the investigation into the church fires.

Gabriel said he was awoken by a staff member calling at 2 a.m. to report the church was on fire.

“I quickly rushed down to the church site and by the time I got there it was already gone. It was a very old church and didn’t take very much time for it to completely burn down,” he said.

The church was built around 1912, he said. It was adjacent to a day school for Indigenous children that also burned down years ago after it was shut down, although Gabriel did not believe that fire was suspicious.

“I attended that school myself, the Indian day school. Even though it wasn’t as traumatic as the residential school, we still suffered the abuse to some extent from the priests and the nuns,” he said.

Children at the day school also attended religious services at the church, he said.

“Having said all that, there was a lot of community members today, especially the elderly ones (who were) saddened by the loss of this church because there were so many memories that were generated over the years — their children’s baptism, their grandchildren’s baptism,” Gabriel said.

“There’s mixed feelings throughout the community on the loss of this church.”

Rev. Obi Ibekwa said he’s the pastor for three parishes in the area including Sacred Heart Mission. He also arrived at the church grounds Monday morning to see what happened to the church, which he said had an average of seven attendees for weekly services.

“I would like to have an open mind and allow the investigation to play out.”

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2021.

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ZZ Top: Bearded bassist Dusty Hill dies in his sleep at 72

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HOUSTON (AP) — ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill, one of the Texas blues trio’s bearded figures, died at his Houston home, the band announced Wednesday on Facebook. He was 72.

In their post, guitarist Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard said Hill died in his sleep. They didn’t give a cause of death, but a July 21 post on the band’s website said Hill was “on a short detour back to Texas, to address a hip issue.”

At that time, the band said its longtime guitar tech, Elwood Francis, would fill in on bass, slide guitar and harmonica.

Born Joe Michael Hill in Dallas, he, Gibbons and Beard formed ZZ Top in Houston in the late 1970s.

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Access requester told to wait five years for public health agency head’s email, texts

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OTTAWA — A requester seeking access to a week’s worth of emails and messages from the head of a federal agency embroiled in controversy has been told to wait five years or more for a response under Canada’s information law.

The applicant recently asked the Public Health Agency of Canada for emails, texts and messages that president Iain Stewart had sent or received from June 14 to 21.

The Access to Information request was prompted by curiosity about Stewart’s refusal to provide a House of Commons committee with unredacted documents about the firing of two scientists, which touched off a battle with Speaker Anthony Rota.

The Canadian Press granted the requester anonymity because they are concerned about the possible implications of publicity for their employment as an Ontario public servant.

Under federal access law, agencies are supposed to answer requests within 30 days or provide reasons why more time is needed.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recently informed the applicant that an extension of up to 1,950 days — over five years and four months — would be required. It said the request involves a large number of records, the original time limit would unduly interfere with agency operations and another government institution must be consulted.

The Public Health Agency had no immediate further comment.

The requester and experts in freedom of information said the lengthy extension defeats the purpose of the access law.

“Transparency is only a lame catchphrase,” said the applicant, accusing the agency of obstructing access to the records.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The requester has complained to the federal information commissioner — an ombudsman for users of the law — in the hope she will remedy the delay.

“She has the chance to take bold action and finally hold federal bureaucrats to account — especially on such a pressing issue of public interest.”

Fred Vallance-Jones, an asssociate professor of journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax, said the extension amounts to “something like eight months of additional time for each single day of messages, which seems absurd on its surface.”

“It’s important to note that Stewart is a very senior official, and there is every expectation that his communications would be preserved and accessible,” Vallance-Jones said.

“Access to information loses any meaning if information cannot be retrieved in a reasonable amount of time and I think that is doubly true for people at this level who should be able to anticipate such requests.”

When Sean Holman, who studies the history of freedom of information, first saw the extension notice, he thought: “This must be a joke.”

“This is nothing but delaying access to effectively deny access and another example of how the Trudeau government has broken the Liberals’ election promise to be open by default,” said Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

The latest extension comes shortly after New Democrat MP Charlie Angus learned it could take the Justice Department more than six years to process his request for documents related to a new regulator that will handle child pornography and exploitative material.

The federal government is currently reviewing the Access to Information Act and how it is administered.

In a submission to the review, the group World Press Freedom Canada said federal institutions have little incentive to abide by reasonable time-frames.

“There is no clear limit to the length of extensions they can unilaterally invoke, and blowing past deadlines has no material consequences. The playing field is tilted in their favour.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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