OTTAWA—It was a trip intended to make amends for another trip that, by many accounts, should not have happened at all.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to atone for his decision to fly to Tofino, B.C., for a vacation on Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, by spending a sobering day with the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc in Kamloops.
As Trudeau looked straight ahead and twisted a pen in his hands, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir sat beside the prime minister and sharply rebuked him for ignoring two invitations to visit the First Nation for the Sept. 30 day of remembrance.
“Instead, in the middle of truth-telling, cultural grounding and sharing that unfolded as part of the commemoration of the very first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation … a journalist quietly informed us that the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was on vacation in Tofino. The shock, anger and sorrow and disbelief was palpable in our community,” Casimir said during a news conference.
“Today is about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake.”
Trudeau met with members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc to apologize for the slight and paid a long-awaited visit to the site where more than 200 unmarked graves were found in late May on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“I am deeply grateful to Kukpi7 Casimir, for having welcomed me here today to listen to survivors, to learn, to commit myself to work forward,” Trudeau said.
“After Sept. 30, she could have chosen to turn her back on me, and on the federal government, and the community could have said, ‘You know what, we don’t need to deal with you anymore.’ And yet, she reached out … and we will walk this path together.”
The prime minister, whose official itinerary initially listed him as attending private meetings in Ottawa while he flew to Tofino, privately apologized to Casimir earlier this month. His office said he spoke to eight survivors by phone on the national day itself, and he attended a ceremony held by Indigenous leaders, elders and residential school survivors on Parliament Hill the night before.
On Monday, both Trudeau and Casimir delivered remarks along with residential school and intergenerational survivors. Shuswap Nation Tribal Council Kukpi7 Wayne Christian and Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald also participated in the day’s proceedings.
“I had a few moments where I could talk to the prime minister — just leaned over and talked to him — and wanted to reiterate to him that actions are what we need,” Archibald said.
“The healing path forward is not, you know, ‘Kumbaya and la la la and let’s walk this path together.’ It’s about reparations. It’s about action, and we expect that moving forward.”
Trudeau did promise action, albeit symbolic, saying the government would lower flags on all federal buildings to half mast every Sept. 30.
Casimir said the gesture would honour children buried in unmarked graves and families who never saw their children come home.
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Flags flown on federal buildings, including those on Parliament Hill, were first lowered on May 30 after the First Nation confirmed the discovery of the unmarked graves through the use of ground-penetrating radar. Since then, more than a thousand unmarked burial sites have been found at the former sites of other schools.
The government is currently consulting with various Indigenous organizations about when the flags should be raised again.
Despite the prime minister’s many apologies Monday, the First Nation remained firm that it is uninterested in statements that don’t lead to widespread change.
Casimir reiterated calls for funding for an Indigenous healing centre to support residential school and intergenerational survivors, and a request for “full, unfettered access” to student records for those who attended the schools. The Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc also want to see the creation of an elders lodge that would allow people to age within their community and a museum to house their own artifacts.
The prime minister said he was committed to working on those issues, including the healing centre, elders lodge and museum.
But Trudeau added that Ottawa has turned over all records it possesses for residential schools.
“When it comes to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, for example, we have full or partial records going back to the late 1800s — everything but the first two years this school was in existence. If there’s more, we will work to find it and if there’s other organizations like the church that have it, we will stand by you and make sure that we get that information.”
The prime minister was also asked by reporters whether his government had decided its next steps regarding the Federal Court’s decision to dismiss Ottawa’s appeals of two human rights tribunal rulings concerning First Nations child welfare compensation and protection.
In response to renewed calls on Monday for the federal government to end its long-standing court battle, Trudeau said Ottawa was consulting with Indigenous partners and “looking at the implications of the actual decision,” with an announcement to be made “in due course.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, told the Star on Monday that the lack of a decision was “unfortunate.”
“They’ve had the ruling now for a couple of weeks and that’s long enough to make a determination of what they’re going to do. I think, sadly, based on their past behaviour and this vague statement, that it’s likely they’re going to appeal and continue to fight against kids.”
But despite the sense that Trudeau still needs to earn the trust of the Indigenous community, there was also a shared commitment to move forward.
As a parting gift, Trudeau gave Casimir a hand drum painted with a hummingbird by Keith Morgan of the Gitxsan Nation. And Casimir presented the prime minister with a beaded teddy bear and a Pendleton blanket for Trudeau’s son, Xavier, who turned 14 on Monday.
“I’m a true believer that actions will speak louder than words. And today, there was action,” Casimir said. “(Trudeau) was here. He flew over on his son’s birthday to be here to make that first step, so I’m hopeful.”
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
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