‘Step it up’: Alberta Indigenous elder pushes Trudeau to hold Catholic Church accountable

EDMONTON — An Indigenous elder in Edmonton is calling on the prime minister to do more to help keep the Catholic Church accountable for its role in the residential school system.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on the Catholic Church to “step up” and take responsibility for its role in the residential school system.

He noted that he personally asked the pope back in 2017 to consider making an apology for the institution’s part in church-run, government-sponsored schools for Indigenous children that operated for more than 120 years in Canada.

“We’re still seeing resistance from the church,” Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa. “Possibly from the church in Canada.”

Trudeau said it’s going to be important for Catholics across the country to reach out themselves to bishops and cardinals on this issue. He added that Catholics need to make it clear they expect the church to take responsibility for its role in the residential school system and help efforts in reconciliation.

“Make it clear that we expect the church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this,” he said. “Be there to help in the grieving and the healing, including with records that are necessary.”

For Augustine, the prime minister’s remarks fell well short of standing up for Indigenous people.

“I think our prime minister could step it up and hold (the church) accountable,” Augustine said. “This is a criminal act.

“It’s an act of genocide and he needs to name that. Not cultural genocide, because when a human body is found that’s no longer cultural.”

The Indigenous elder told CTV News Edmonton that it is unacceptable for the Catholic Church to refuse releasing archival documents.

“This cone of silence that this church has put on since these children have been buried, they know about it and how many other children (have been lost),” she added. “That’s being an accomplice in the crime of murder. In a mass murder.”

“Release the documents, because what criminal can get away with keeping documents hidden, evidence hidden,” Augustine said. “Why is it that the Catholic Church can do that?”

Augustine and a group of Indigenous-Edmontonians have been outside St. Joseph’s Basilica for six days gathering pairs of shoes and making tipis.

Little tipis

A group of Indigenous-Edmontonians have been constructing tiny tipis and placing them in front of St. Joseph’s Bascilica in Edmonton to help honour those lost at the Kamloops Residential School (CTV News Edmonton)

In Augustine’s view, it is not enough for the prime minister to ask Canadians to pressure the Catholic Church to release records.

“Justin, wake up,” she said. “You’re being too soft. Man up Justin!”

Richard Smith, Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, said in a statement that the archdiocese is committing to releasing any documents on residential schools that it has.

“We regret and acknowledge the role played by Catholic organizations in the residential school system, and in sorrow offer profound condolences to the families and communities,” he said.

Back in 2014, Archbishop Smith, on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, apologized to Indigenous peoples who experienced sexual and physical abuse while attending Catholic administered residential schools.

The archdiocese committed to “full transparency” for its archives and records, and offered any support to help Indigenous peoples and the “long road towards reconciliation.”

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here

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