Barrhead Alberta church fires leave more questions than answers

Firefighters put out a church on fire near Barrhead, AB Dec. 7, 2023
Firefighters put out a church on fire near Barrhead, AB Dec. 7, 2023Davidge, Kelsey (RCMP/GRC)

Two churches near Barrhead, AB set ablaze December 7 have left more questions than answers.

On December 7, around 7:52 p.m., Barrhead RCMP responded to a structure fire at The Glenreagh Church on Range Road 40 in Barrhead.

At 9 p.m. Barrhead RCMP responded to a second structure fire at another church building on Range Road 54. Both churches were Anglican, though an initial press release from the RCMP incorrectly named one as a United Church.

The Barrhead Fire Services attended both active fires and extinguished the blazes quickly, but one was burned down and the other severely damaged. An older model two-ton truck was observed leaving the scene at the Glenreagh Church and is believed to be linked to the fires.

“After the initial investigation from the fire examiner, it was determined that the fires were intentionally set,” said an RCMP press release.

“Until suspects are identified and interviewed, their exact motivations remain unknown.”

Barrhead Fire Chief Gary Hove told the Western Standard, “We know where it started, but we don't really take a lot of resources to figure out what exactly lit it,” Hove said.

“The Glenreagh one, that one started in the little French porch at the back of the chapel. When we got on the scene the back of the building was collapsing. One of the residents was driving by and noticed a pickup that was parked at the church about 15 minutes before it was set on fire.”

Hove said both churches represented part of the local heritage.

“It’s just really unfortunate that somebody would light these little pioneer churches on fire. The one was built in 1913. It was moved up there to preserve it,” he said.

“The other one was originally in the town of Barrhead and they relocated it out there just to preserve [it] because it's a pioneer church as well. But that one was totally destroyed. People still used them for weddings and some baptisms and things like that.”

Hove would not speculate on whether the fires were repraisals for alleged atrocities at residential schools.

“I don’t know. I don’t really see. I live under a rock,” Hove said.

“As far as if that’s the reasoning behind it, I don’t know what it was.”

Church fires have become more common since the May 27 2021 announcements that scans of soil disturbances beneath the Kamloops Residential School could suggest 215 graves.

University of Calgary political science professor emeritus Tom Flanagan recently co-authored the book “Grave Error” which argues the announcement has led to harmfully false and exaggerated assertions. Whether this led to the church fires is harder to prove.

“I hate to jump to conclusions based on such circumstantial evidence.  It would help if the RCMP would release some evidence about the motivations about the men who have been arrested.  As happens now, arrests are announced and then the public hears nothing further,” Flanagan told the Western Standard.

“I don’t know for sure why church burnings continue in northern Alberta.  But the combination of facts points in an indigenous direction:

  1. A wave of church burnings started after the Kamloops announcement.

  2. There are a lot of native people in northern Alberta and a lot of mission churches in remote areas — soft targets.

  3. Among the few arrests made, a number of the men have Indian or common Metis names.”

Then again, Flanagan said, it’s possible “other motivations” are in play.

“When I was a teenager, friends of mine burned down an abandoned building that was rumoured to have been a house of prostitution at one time.  It was just their idea of fun,” he said.

“I think the public has a right to know what’s going on. Maybe indigenous people are being unfairly blamed.  We can’t really know without information.”

Hymie Rubenstein, a retired professor of anthropology from the University of Manitoba, told Western Standard many Christian churches have been burned since 2021 whose denominations had nothing to do with residential schools. 

“I was also disturbed by how almost no charges were ever laid though this seems typical in most arson cases,” he said in an email.

“Indigenous violence — if most perpetrators were indeed aboriginal— often seems to be random or induced by alcohol and substance abuse.”

The retired professor, whose Substack is dedicated to indigenous issues, said it was up to columnists to opine whether these fires had an indigenous connection.

He pointed to a 2018 CBC article where a former residential school student at Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan said she was glad her former school burned down and thought former students probably did it.

Columnist John Robson told Western Standard that “deranged individuals” were to blame, but recent “decolonizing” emphases may play a part.

“This ideology…casts Christians as oppressors and therefore violence against them is not real violence, just ‘self-defence,’ Like the totally crazy tendency of SJWs (social justice warriors) to line up with Hamas because Jews returning to their homeland are somehow ‘settlers’ and the people who brutally chased them out are victims. And yes, clearly it’s connected with the false narrative about residential schools,” Robson said in an email.

“More strident condemnation would help, partly by forcing them to untangle their ideological commitments. But law enforcement would be more effective. Certainly if it were mosques we’d be hearing condemnation. If it were synagogues, well, condemnation and cheers.”

Retired Mountie Larry Comeau had similar sentiments in an email to the Western Standard.

“Just imagine Trudeau’s outage if even one Mosque was torched,” Comeau said.

“This lack of concern by the political class and RCMP on this direct attack on Christianity is downright frightening. Yet Catholic Churches embraced the story line spouted by Trudeau of mass indigenous graves without an in depth forensic investigation. Too many Canadians are all too willing to accept what Trudeau says as being truthful.”

University of Ottawa criminology professor Darryl Davies said the church burnings were “not within the scope of my expertise,” but added, “Strange things are going on in the world these days that even defy a criminological explanation.”

The RCMP is investigating the cause of the fires. Anyone with relevant information is asked to contact the Barrhead RCMP at 403-674-4848 or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously by phone at 1-800-222-8477.

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