Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says flags on federal buildings, which have been at half-mast since hundreds of unmarked graves were reported at former residential schools last spring, should be raised.
At the end of May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered that flags on the Peace Tower and federal buildings be flown at half-mast until further notice to honour the children who died at the former Kamloops residential school, as well as residential school survivors and families. Since then, flags at federal buildings have stayed at half-mast.
Asked on Thursday if the flags would be up right now if he was prime minister, Mr. O’Toole said: “We should be proud to put our flag back up.”
“I’ve been talking to Indigenous leaders since I became Opposition leader. Reconciliation will be important for me, as will be pride in Canada,” he added. “It’s not a time to tear down Canada, it’s a time to recommit to build it to be the country we know it can be. And reconciliation is very important and should be important to all Canadians.”
But the other major federal parties rejected the idea, and some Indigenous leaders said not enough work has been done yet to raise the flags. The Conservative Party did not say whether Mr. O’Toole had consulted with any Indigenous groups before revealing his position.
On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, near Kamloops, said a search had found unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school. The announcement sparked a national reckoning over Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people and renewed calls for reparations from governments and religious entities.
As the flags were lowered, memorials popped up across the country, with many people placing children’s shoes in rows to remember the victims of the schools. Searches at other former schools have found more than 1,200 unmarked graves, and are under way at more than 140 sites.
“I would love to see the flags raised, but not until we have something to celebrate, and we’re a long way from that,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
“Canada may have moved on from the dark days of Indian residential schools, but our people have not,” Mr. Fox said, noting that gravesites are still being found and the search on Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory has not yet begun.
“It’s not about pride, it’s about compassion and understanding,” Mr. Fox said. “Indigenous people don’t need to recommit to Canada – Canada needs to commit to us.”
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said that before the flags are raised, the federal government needs to implement the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in particular those dealing with finding and documenting all unmarked graves. She also called for the disclosure of all federal records related to the schools, and the end of litigation against school survivors and First Nations children.
“The flags should go up when the work has been done, and the work has not been done,” Ms. Blackstock told The Globe on Thursday.
Keeping the flags lowered shows the country is holding itself accountable, Ms. Blackstock said. If they’re raised now it would “create an illusion that this type of injustice has somehow been solved.”
Lynne Groulx, the chief executive officer of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said she was dismayed by Mr. O’Toole’s comment about feeling pride in raising Canada’s flags back up.
“They should remain at half-mast until all the bodies of our children are found and we are able to find closure,” she wrote on Twitter. “Mr. O’Toole, this is not reconciliation.”
Neither the NDP nor the Liberals gave any date for when they believe the flags should be raised.
“Lowering the flags to half-mast is a small but important step to show some respect. It is a symbol that we are not looking away,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.
Alex Wellstead, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party, said a re-elected government would “continue to walk the path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples – not dictating how things ought to be done to them.”
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