One of Alberta’s oldest churches has been burned down in a northern First Nation community, a fire that the RCMP are treating as suspicious.
On early Thursday morning, Alberta RCMP received a 911 call reporting that the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Fort Chipewyan was on fire. Officers responded and assisted the Fort Chipewyan Fire Department along with Alberta Forestry to put it out and prevent any spread to nearby buildings or woodlands.
RCMP spokesperson Corporal Troy Savinkoff said the service were not aware of any threats to the church before the fire and that they are very early in their investigation.
“We do believe it suspicious, but we’re still investigating to see what the potential cause of the fire is,” he said.
Fort Chipewyan is a small hamlet located on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, more than 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The destroyed church was built by Catholic missionaries in 1909 and became a national historic place in 2006.
This week’s incident follows a year after Catholic and Anglican churches were set on fire in several Indigenous communities and a month after Pope Francis visited Alberta to apologize for the legacy of residential schools.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation posted a 10-minute live video to Facebook at 3:20 a.m. on Thursday morning, where he shows the church engulfed in flames and already burned down to its foundation.
“This was uncalled for. This was a beautiful church,” he said in the video.
In the footage, Mr. Adam helps firefighters work to extinguish the flames and expresses concern over public safety as a fuel tank caught fire at the base of the church’s last structural wall.
“This is sad. … As you could see the fire trucks are exhausted, competed. Nothing we could do to save the church now from here on.”
Cpl. Savinkoff said one person suffered a minor injury after a collision involving a fire truck, which was responding to the scene. He said the church did not have a weekly congregation, but many of the comments posted to the video, which had been viewed more than 5,000 times, expressed sadness over the building’s destruction.
Last summer, several churches were burned down in Indigenous communities after the discovery of suspected unmarked graves of children at residential-school sites across Canada.
In June, 2021, two Catholic churches were set on fire on the same night on Penticton Indian Band and Osoyoos Indian Band lands in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Two more fires destroyed churches in the Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands in the Interior shortly after.
In Alberta, the Siksika First Nation Catholic Church was believed to have been deliberately set ablaze in the Blackfoot nation just east of Calgary. The St. Jean Baptiste Parish Church in Morinville, just north of Edmonton, was destroyed in a fire, also believed to be deliberately set.
Last month, Francis visited Canada to seek penance and apology for the harms caused by the Catholic Church in the residential-school system.
Cpl. Savinkoff said the RCMP is “aware of the sensitivities right now” surrounding the residential-school system and continues to investigate and provide assistance into occurrences of such suspicious fires.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.