OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered a private apology to the chief of a British Columbia First Nation after passing up opportunities to honour Canada's first official Truth and Reconciliation day in the community, prompting one major Indigenous advocacy organization to call on him to voice his contrition in public.
Trudeau's office said the prime minister spoke with the head of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation on Saturday and apologized for failing to accept invitations to mark Sept. 30 in the community where more than 200 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of a former residential school. While Trudeau was in the province that day, he chose instead to spend personal time with his family.
The head of the The Native Women's Association of Canada said she welcomed word of Trudeau's private apology, but called on him to make a more public statement and cautioned that his actions may have lasting consequences.
Chief Executive Officer Lynne Groulx said members had asked Trudeau to admit he made an error in judgment, but believes there now needs to be a message directed at the wider Indigenous community.
"It's every single residential school survivor, intergenerational school survivor — we know that that's 100 per cent of our communities are impacted by residential schools," she said.
Trudeau spent Sunday in Tofino, B.C., where he has been since last Thursday when he flew there on a day meant to honour Indigenous survivors of Canada's residential schools system.
His location came as a shock after his itinerary initially reported he was in Ottawa for private meetings.
A spokesman for Trudeau said he spent several hours on the phone with eight people who lived through residential schools, and denied that the prime minister had used the historic day to take a vacation.
Global News filmed the prime minister walking along a beach and the resulting video shows him declining to offer any comment.
Reports of his Reconciliation Day activities sparked widespread backlash from Indigenous leaders, who felt it was disrespectful of him not to join other politicians in attending events held to honour the children who never came home.
More than 4,000 Indigenous children are believed to have died while being forced to attend the church-run facilities, where many survivors reported suffering from physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect and malnutrition.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation, which earlier this year announced the findings of more than 200 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., shared on social media that it sent "two heartfelt invitations" for Trudeau to join them on Sept. 30.
Trudeau's office said Sunday he reached out to Chief Rosanne Casimir a day earlier and offered his apology, but didn't divulge specifics on what he said.
A spokesperson for the First Nation confirmed a conversation and apology took place, but also offered no further details.
Groulx said people feel disappointed, hurt and angry by Trudeau's actions and said it should be made clear that Sept. 30 is a national day of observance, not a holiday.
She said the fact that the Tofino trip happened on the heels of a federal election campaign further erodes trust that the government is serious about the commitments it has made to advance reconciliation.
"Maybe it's just a part of what governments do when they need to get elected and to win over Indigenous people. We're doubting the legitimacy of the promises that are being made," she said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said "hollow apologies will no longer be accepted."
"As National Chief, on behalf of all First Nations, I expect concrete action and changed behaviours," she said in a Sunday statement. "The prime minister must demonstrate through actions that he is committed to the healing path forward."
Archibald asked that media give the same amount of attention to the stories of residential school survivors as Trudeau's behaviour.
Canada's declaration that Sept. 30 would be a day honouring survivors was made in the weeks following the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation's announcement about unmarked graves. The day was previously known as "Orange Shirt Day," an initiative aimed at generating awareness of the dark legacy of Canada's residential schools.
The discovery of the graves set off weeks of mourning across Canada. Hundreds of tiny shoes and stuffed animals were placed near the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill as well as at other sites around the country to remember the children who died and went missing.
Weeks later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan also reported locating more than 700 unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar technology other First Nations said they too were using to find the remains of children at former residential school sites.
The news, combined with the reckoning it stirred within many Canadians, prompted the minority Parliament to pass a bill naming Sept. 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The move was also among the 94 calls to action put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its landmark 2015 report.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2021
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press