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The remains of the old Fort Chipewyan church (The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church) after being burned down in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., on Aug. 25.crystal mercredi/The Globe and Mail

The chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says the fire that destroyed one of Alberta’s oldest churches this week is a significant loss and that elders in the community want it rebuilt.

“A lot of people held events at the church, like weddings and first communion and baptism and funerals,” Chief Allan Adam said Friday.

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, a national historic site since 2006, was burned to the ground early Thursday morning in the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, located more than 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Mr. Adam said the paintings and artwork inside the church, which was built by Catholic missionaries in 1909, have always captured his attention.

“Now it is not going to be there.”

The RCMP responded to the incident Thursday, assisting the Fort Chipewyan Fire Department to put out the fire and prevent the spread of flames to other buildings. The Mounties are currently investigating the incident as suspicious but do not yet have any leads as to what could have caused it.

In a statement Friday, Alberta Minister of Minister of Justice and Solicitor-General Tyler Shandro said “Albertans join the community of Fort Chipewyan in grieving the senseless loss of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church” and that the “government has been working hard to offer protection and support to those who are being targeted” in such incidents.

This week’s fire follows a series of other ones last summer that burned down Catholic and Anglican churches in Indigenous communities across several provinces, after hundreds of suspected unmarked graves of children were discovered at multiple residential school sites.

Last month, Pope Francis visited Canada to apologize for the harms caused by members of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, in which the church operated a majority of the government-run institutions.

Mr. Adam, who helped firefighters respond to the scene of the fire Thursday, said he is not sure whether the fire began because of arson or from a mechanical issue in the more than 100-year-old building. However, he does not believe residential school survivors could have been the cause of the fire.

“If it’s mechanical, then it’s mechanical, but either way we’ve lost a historic site,” he said.

The RCMP are unable to confirm whether the fire has any connection to the previous ones from last summer.

Mr. Adam said he has spoken with the community’s elders who are wanting the church to be re-established in a new spot in the community.

“We’ll take a look at that and the possibility to build a new church somewhere.”

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