Four Alberta churches burned in the weeks before Christmas

There have been 15 suspicious church fires so far in 2023 and police have arrested suspects in five of them

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While Montreal’s Notre Dame held Christmas mass after a fire, four Alberta churches stood skeletal, damaged, quiet on Christmas, set ablaze by arsonists in the last few weeks.

The four Alberta churches, in various parts of the province, are all under investigation by police. Most recently, just five days before Christmas, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Beiseker, a village of less than 1,000 people northeast of Calgary, was burned to the ground.

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It prompted Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative party leader, to post on X that his thoughts were with the congregation as they mourned the loss of their church.

“This is the 4th church in 2 weeks to be targeted by acts of violent anti-Christian hatred,” Polievre tweeted.

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said “To the parishioners of these churches and to the Christian community across our province, I stand in solidarity with you against all forms of hate.”

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But, as it turns out, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have — so far — zero evidence that any of the church arsons have any link to anti-Christian animus.

There have been 15 suspicious church fires so far in 2023 and police have arrested suspects in five of them; in those cases, there were mental-health issues or intoxication at play and in two cases, the arsonists had torched other buildings as well.

“None of the, of the files we’ve solved, showed any particular affinity against the churches whatsoever, on those ones,” said Cpl. Troy Savinkoff, an RCMP spokesman, in an interview with Global News.

There’s also no evidence, Savinkoff said, that the fires are linked or part of any “concerted effort” against churches.

The fire at the Notre Dame basilica began in the early hours of Dec. 24. Firefighters who responded eventually called police, having thought they found an accelerant on scene. As it happened, the fire turned out to be electrical.

The fires at churches in Alberta, at least those in the last few weeks, happened in four areas. There was the fire in Beiseker, which firefighters from several rural firefighters fought for 11 hours.

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“We did have some local parishioners come through the scene to see what happened,” Rockyford fire department Deputy Chief Darcy Burke said. “It’s a very tight-knit community, and they were very impacted by losing their church. It’s the centre of their community.

Shannon Grabo McQuaig posted on Facebook some of her memories about the church.

“What looks to most people to be an ordinary church has no idea what it means to have grown up here. It wasn’t just a church – it was a place people gathered to say goodbye to loved ones, a place to get married, a place many children were dedicated, a place were my cousins and I would play hide and go seek, a place my grandma would tickle my hands, a place full of singing, it was a family,” she wrote.

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Two churches were set alight on the night of Dec. 7 in Barrhead, Alta., a town just north of Edmonton that’s home to about 4,500 people. In both instances, the churches were historical, long having stopped hosting regular services, but they were still integral part of the community’s history. Both had been founded before the First World War.

St. Mary Abbots Anglican church was completely destroyed, but St. Aidan’s Church, the other church, remains structurally sound, according to the local newspaper. An hour after the fire at St. Aidan’s was called in, another call notified emergency services that St. Mary Abbots was burning.

“I’m pissed off,” Barrhead Coun. Bill Lane told the Barrhead Leader. “(The arsonist) waited until the fire crews arrived at (the first fire), knowing they would all be over there so he could come and do this.”

The fourth church destroyed was in Janvier, a tiny hamlet of about 140 people that’s 120 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. St. Gabriel Catholic Mission was destroyed by fire on Dec. 15. That building was unused, and a newer church that stands nearby was not damaged in the fire.

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Coun. Shane Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation condemned the destruction in a video posted to Facebook.

“The significance of this old church in the community — lots of celebrations at this church over the years, lots of weddings, lots of baptisms, this is a place where we’ve come to say our last respects to our loved ones and our ancestors … enough’s enough. We’ve gotta start looking out for one another as a community,” said Janvier.

“If we’re going to make statements that this is our land and we’re going to fight for this land, then we damn well better learn to respect our land. That’s not respecting our community.”

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Structure fire at the Beiseker Seventh Day Adventist Church. Photo by RCMP /nat

Several arrests have been made around Alberta in connection with church fires.

Fort Chipewyan’s Catholic church was burned down in August 2022; two men are set to stand trial in April. A string of church vandalism across central Alberta towns of Wetaskawin, Ponoka and Bashaw, which ended with a fire at St. Michaels Hungarian Church in February 2023, saw two youths arrested and charged.

“At this time there is no evidence to suggest that these crimes were politically or ideologically motivated,” RCMP said.

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Lastly, in early May, a woman was seen trying to set fire to St. Anne Parish Church in Barrhead. The woman was arrested and the church was minimally damaged.

While these fires do not, at least so far, according to investigators, seem to have any ideological or political motivations, Canada saw a rash of church fires across the country over the summer of 2021. The arsons, many of which were of old residential school churches, came after the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, in Kamloops, B.C., announced it had done a ground-penetrating radar search that suggested the presence of some 250 unmarked graves.

It led to considerable backlash and mourning and, potentially, motivated some of the perpetrators in the wave of arsons.

With additional reporting by the Calgary Herald and Fort McMurray Today.

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