OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced backlash on Friday after his decision to fly to British Columbia to spend time with his family on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said it was shocked Trudeau “completely stepped aside” from a national day set aside for reflection on the legacy of residential schools.
Lynne Groulx, head of the Indigenous Women’s Political Rights organization, said in a statement she was stunned by the “sheer level of insensitivity” of Trudeau’s decision to take a trip to British Columbia instead. than to attend events marking this historic day.
She added that it showed “a contempt for what First Nations, Métis and Inuit have endured as a result of colonization.”
The Prime Minister flew to Tofino, B.C. on Thursday, where Global News filmed him walking along the beach at one point, declining to comment.
Later Thursday, Trudeau tweeted that he had spent time that day having phone conversations with residential school survivors from across Canada, “listening to their stories and getting their advice on the way forward.”
Alex Wellstead, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, said Friday that Trudeau “spoke with eight residential school survivors from across the country for several hours yesterday. It was an important opportunity to hear their stories of trauma and healing, and to hear their advice on the way forward. “
Thursday marked the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day, which was established this spring in response to one of 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that documented atrocities against First Nations children. Nations, Métis and Inuit in residential schools administered by the Church for over a century.
The day was previously known as Orange Shirt Day, in honor of the experience of Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in British Columbia, including the gift of clothes from her grandmother. was taken on his first day at a boarding school. .
Groulx said in the statement that while Trudeau was not in the public eye, millions of other people across the country wore orange shirts, spoke out on social media and participated in ceremonies, reflecting on “the dark history of Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples and what needs to be improved. “
Trudeau had participated in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on Wednesday night near the Centennial Flame, where mounds of plush toys and pairs of children’s shoes were laid in honor of the children who never returned from residential schools .
Judith Sayers, chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, which includes the Tofino region, said on Friday that the organization had not heard from Trudeau and had no idea that he was going to be in the territory on Thursday. She said he could have joined the Nuu-chah-nulth in Tofino for some brief remarks and left.
“I understand he’s on vacation and wants some free time, but he should have prioritized the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. It’s important to us and to us here. It was a really important day, ”Sayers said.
“I always think back to how Trudeau says Indigenous people are the most important relationship, but he doesn’t show it. He always says good things but doesn’t chase them with actions.”
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who said she attended a ceremony commemorating the day in her riding of Thunder Bay, Ont., Declined to answer questions on Friday about Trudeau’s trip.
“I can’t talk about other people’s schedules,” Hajdu said. “What I saw in my community was a commitment to reconciliation.”
“For me, it’s hard to express how emotional this day has been,” she said at a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, “and how touching it was to see so many citizens meet native people and hear stories that I know for sure some have never heard of before. “
Blake Desjarlais, a Métis leader and newly-elected NDP MP for Edmonton Griesbach, said Trudeau’s actions increased public perception that Thursday was “a family day” rather than a day of serious reflection on the treatment of indigenous peoples.
“Day one requires a precedent,” Desjarlais said. “It is difficult to imagine the future of September 30 without the condolences, presence and messages of the Prime Minister.”
Trudeau’s daily public itinerary first stated that he was in “private meetings” in Ottawa on Thursday, although this was later altered to reflect his actual location.
A 75-year-old survivor who spoke to Trudeau on Thursday “never thought during his lifetime that he would have the Prime Minister’s ear to talk about what he went through as a child,” according to his advisor, Sharna Sugarman.
Sugarman said the man told him he was upset by the media coverage focused on the Prime Minister’s family trip to Tofino, rather than issues of truth and reconciliation.
Sugarman, a Blackfoot survivor of the Sixties Scoop whose parents and grandparents went to residential schools, defended Trudeau’s decision to spend time with his children. She said he had a history of fighting for indigenous people.
“The Prime Minister, in my opinion, has done his job, and without his government (September 30) would not have been marked as a day of mourning and reflection. It is not a public holiday,” he said. she declared. .
“He kept a lot of promises to my people. Is he perfect? No. No one is perfect except a newborn baby.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who was in Italy on Thursday for global environment talks, said the PM made it clear that there is no relationship more important to the government than its relationship with indigenous peoples.
“He spoke with survivors across the country,” he said. “I know how much that means to him.
Groulx said Trudeau’s decision to “fly to Tofino for a vacation” rather than “take the time his government has set aside to reflect on the residential school tragedy” gave the impression that he did not wasn’t taking the matter seriously.
“It’s almost like he ticked off one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action by declaring the holiday, then wiped his hands and said ‘job done, let’s move on, “” she added.
Frank Caputo, Conservative MP for Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, wrote to Trudeau on Friday asking why he had not visited the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., where the First Nation earlier this year Tk’emlups te Secwepemc said on the ground – radar located what are believed to be the remains of 215 indigenous children in unmarked graves.
“Although you are in the province and a short distance from the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, you have chosen this important day for your vacation,” he wrote.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation on Thursday said the community has twice invited Trudeau to join residential school survivors and their families.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 1, 2021.
– With files from Nick Wells in Vancouver and Mia Rabson in Ottawa.