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Fire destroys Catholic church north of Edmonton, town cancels Canada Day festivities

MORINVILLE, Alta. — Alberta's premier is condemning what he calls "arson attacks at Christian churches" after a historic parish was destroyed in a fire that prompted a small town to cancel its Canada Day celebrations.

MORINVILLE, Alta. — Alberta's premier is condemning what he calls "arson attacks at Christian churches" after a historic parish was destroyed in a fire that prompted a small town to cancel its Canada Day celebrations. 

“We cannot replace what was lost today,” Morinville Mayor Barry Turner said Wednesday.

People in Morinville, about 40 kilometres north of Edmonton, watched the St. John Baptiste Parish erupt into flames and crumble earlier in the morning. Turner said the 114-year-old building had been the heart of the community. 

He said town council decided to cancel Canada Day celebrations on Thursday. The community's cultural centre is to be open so people can come together and share memories of the parish's history.

Premier Jason Kenney, who visited the church rubble, said it has been appalling to see attacks on faith communities.

"This historic church was in the heart of Morinville and a key part of the spiritual life of Alberta's francophone community," the premier said.

On social media, he described the fire as a "violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community."

RCMP said the fire is suspicious.

Iain Bushell, Morinville's general manager of infrastructure and community services, said the fire was so fierce that firefighters could not enter the building and the roof collapsed a short time later. The former firefighter said the two main steeples and front facade of the church are completely gone.

He said the cause of the fire is undetermined.

"Certainly the timing is unfortunate, given that it is a rather iconic Catholic church in our community and with the timing of sad events that have been uncovered in the country right now," Bushell said.

There have been several fires at churches across the country since the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools. Most of the fires have been on First Nations, including a blaze that also damaged a Catholic church Wednesday on a First Nation in Nova Scotia.  

There has also been some vandalism targeting churches and statues in cities.

Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia have been destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what RCMP said could be arson.

The fires occurred less than a month after the discovery of what's believed to be the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.

The Cowessess First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan announced last week that ground-penetrating radar detected a potential 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. 

Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, which operated for more than 120 years in Canada. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church. 

The Alberta government website lists the Morinville church as historic. It says construction of the church was finished in 1907 and the first mass was held on Jan. 1, 1908. 

Kenney said the province will double funding to help protect churches and other targets of vandalism and violence. He said the justice minister will be working with police chiefs to step up monitoring of sites that could be targeted.

Audrey Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, said the community and church have connections with the Métis. Members have been married there and recently left shoes on the steps to commemorate children who went to residential schools. 

"Violence and destruction are not the way forward during these difficult times," she said.

Poitras added that Kenney's comments will not bring people together in empathy and reconciliation.

"He is quick to condemn this 'attack' on the Church, and I look forward to seeing equal anger from him about the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples," she said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2021.

— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

The Canadian Press