Police are investigating a suspicious fire at Tofino’s St. Columba Anglican Church.
The fire was reported just after 4 a.m. on Friday, July 2, according to a statement from the RCMP.
“This church has been in Tofino for over 100 years and is of significant historical importance to the community,” said BC RCMP spokesperson Sergeant Chris Manseau. “Investigators are aware of the recent church fires occurring around the province, and will share information with them to determine if there is a link, however at this time there is nothing indicating so.”
By the time police arrived at the scene, the fire was under control and contained to a small portion of the church thanks to the efforts of the Tofino Volunteer Fire Department which was successful in preventing major structural damage, according to the statement.
The church is located on Second Street and no other structures were damaged.
“It’s fortunate that the damage was limited to one small area of the church, and the fire department’s quick response time likely saved the remainder,” Sgt Manseau said.
RCMP assisted with boarding up the church and have reached out to fire investigators for assistance. Anyone who may have information about the fire is being asked to contact the Tofino RCMP at
The church’s lay canon Whitey Bernard heaped praise on the volunteer firefighters who saved the historic building.
“The Tofino Volunteer Fire Department did an absolutely exemplary job of putting that fire out,” Bernard told the Westerly News. “They didn’t get one drop of water inside the building, even though the fire had burned right through the wall. That’s a very professional performance by them to nip this thing when they did…Another five minutes and we would probably have lost the whole thing.”
Bernard said emails were sent out to the church’s congregation to advise them of the fire.
“It’s vandalism. It’s a hate crime,” he said. “People are sad and people are a bit confused about the whys and why our church would be targeted. Basically, they’re just sad about it all. I don’t detect a lot of anger or, ‘Let’s get even’ or anything like that. People are just really sad and depressed over the whole issue.”
Tofino mayor Dan Law, who is a member of the St. Columba congregation and has led a family service at the church with his wife Molly, noted arson has not been confirmed and said he would be “extremely disappointed” if the fire was set intentionally.
“If arson was the cause of the fire then people need to realize that this type of behaviour is just completely unacceptable and there’s no excuse for burning churches or burning anybody’s property or targeting people,” he said. “If this was an intentional act aimed at this small anglican congregation, then that’s a very, very, very serious concern for everybody.”
He said he’s been following comments about the fire posted to social media and a “vast majority” of commenters have suggested “violence is not the answer,” though others seem to be condoning it.
“I certainly hope that people realize that violent acts and destructive acts such as arson or violence against people based on any qualifier, whether it’s race or religion or gender is just completely unacceptable and that goes across the board,” he said. “That’s what we as Canadians aspire to, to defeat that kind of thinking, that it’s okay to be violent towards a specific group or a specific people based on any external or internal identifier. Quite honestly, the danger across the province and across Canada is that people will condone violent acts and they’ll excuse certain violent acts over others because of whatever qualifier people can come up with and that has to be stopped. It has to be acknowledged that this is a very, very significant and troubling problem.”
He added St. Columba’s congregation has been active in raising funds for a variety of causes, including reconciliation.
“I know online some people have excused the possibility of arson based on this being a church and I’d just like to point out that this small congregation did raise money years ago to fund the dismantling of the residential school in Alert Bay specifically and there’s been quite a lot of action towards reconciliation,” he said. “These are real people who are donating their time and finances to try to make the community a better place.”
Bernard said the St. Columba congregation has roughly 40 members on the church roll and the town’s Christian community is tight-knit, noting St. Francis of Assisi Parish and the Tofino Bible Fellowship reached out in support of St. Columba after the fire.
“The Christian community in Tofino is well connected together. We don’t all worship in the same place and of course there’s some different views on things, but we’re all part of the community and we’re all friends within the community,” Bernard said. “It’s really the whole church community that’s been affected.”
He added St. Columba plays an important role in the community.
“There’s a lot of respect for St. Columba within the community. People that don’t attend but certainly show up on high days and holy days and Remembrance Day and all that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s a lot bigger than it appears when you say there’s just 35-40 people on the church roll.”
He said the church is insured and the structural damage will be repaired.
St. Columba is currently between ministers and has not held a Sunday service since the start of the coronavirus pandemic over a year ago.
Bernard said a new minister is expected to arrive later this summer and the church hopes to begin services again in September.