KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said Justin Trudeau's visit Monday is a chance to move forward, even as she publicly rebuked the prime minister for ignoring her first invitation to join the community to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

While Trudeau sat beside her with the former Kamloops Indian Residential School looming in the background, Casimir said his visit was “bittersweet.” She said she hoped he'd be there on Sept. 30 to interact with survivors and “show his commitment to rectifying the historical wrongs of residential school and to grieve with our residential school survivors.”

“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, in this arbour, a journalist quietly informed us that the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was on vacation in Tofino,” Casimir said.

“The shock, anger and sorrow and disbelief was palpable in our community.”

Trudeau mostly stared straight ahead and fiddled with his pen as she spoke. He apologized to Casimir previously by phone, but he told the few dozen people gathered Monday, including some wearing orange “Every Child Matters” T-shirts, that he regrets his decision not to accept the original invitations.

“I am here today to say I wish I had been here a few weeks ago and I deeply regret it,” he told them. “But I am here today to take the hand extended by Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc and so many Indigenous Canadians across this country who have every reason in the world to feel pessimistic and bleak about the future and instead choose hope.”

More than 1,300 unmarked burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools have been uncovered since the spring using ground-penetrating radar. The first 215 were identified at the Kamloops school in May.

Casimir said she had invited Trudeau to attend the Sept. 30 day with her community, either in person or by providing remarks by video, but his office didn’t respond. Trudeau attended a national event in Ottawa the evening of Sept. 29, but he spent the next day flying to Tofino with his family, saying later he held a phone call with several residential school survivors.

Trudeau said he knows his decision overshadowed the events of both that day and the evening before, when a flag honouring residential school survivors was flown on Parliament Hill.

More than 1,300 unmarked burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools have been uncovered since the spring using ground-penetrating radar. The first 215 were identified at the Kamloops school in May. #TRC

“Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, people talked about me, and that's on me,” he said Monday. “I take responsibility for that.”

Casimir said Trudeau's visit was “about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake.”

Trudeau visited the sacred site where the unmarked graves were located.

“It was a long-awaited moment to receive a personal hand of recognition and sympathy regarding this horrific confirmation of unmarked graves from the Canadian (prime minister),” she said.

Casimir reiterated calls for “unfettered access” to all of the documents that might help identify the children buried at residential schools, for resources to help finish searching the entire grounds of the former school, and for Ottawa to fund a new healing centre for survivors and their families in the Kamloops area.

Trudeau said he committed to her that Ottawa would work with them on a healing centre, an elder's lodge, and to find the answers needed.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said earlier Monday that Trudeau's vacation in Tofino was “a slap in the face to reconciliation in this country.”

He said Trudeau must recognize that the actions of many involved in running residential schools such as the one in Kamloops were “crimes against humanity.”

“We're dealing with historic crimes about the taking of children, about the attempted destruction of the Indigenous people in Canada,” he said. “So it's really important for the prime minister to understand that words, and nice words, won't cut it at this time.”

Angus said the NDP wants a special prosecutor appointed to investigate and prosecute the crimes on a national level and not leave it to a series of local investigations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2021.

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