Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Monday, a much-anticipated visit to the B.C. community that discovered unmarked burial sites of former residential school students and touched off national commemorations for Indigenous children who died at the institutions.
Mr. Trudeau’s visit is taking place after the community sent the Prime Minister invitations to which he did not respond. Earlier this month, Mr. Trudeau apologized to the Chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc for missing an event that she invited him to for the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada on Sept. 30, a day meant to honour survivors of residential schools and to commemorate thousands who never made it home.
Mr. Trudeau attended an event a day prior on Parliament Hill with survivors of the schools, but did not participate in any public events the following day. He instead travelled to Tofino, a popular B.C. tourist destination, with family. The decision generated considerable political backlash, including from Indigenous leaders and opposition parties. Mr. Trudeau has since said this decision was a mistake that he regrets.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc said Mr. Trudeau “missed an opportunity” to show his commitment to the survivors of residential schools by not replying to its invitations to take part in an event marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It also said in a statement that the focus of Mr. Trudeau’s visit Monday needs to be on the “real issues of reconciliation” rather than a “media event to compensate” for his lack of participation on Sept. 30.
The First Nation has sought funding for a healing centre for the Kamloops school’s survivors and their families. Kamloops had at one point the largest of Canada’s residential schools. It operated from 1890 to 1969, mostly under a Catholic order, but the federal government ran it as a day school for nine more years before it closed in 1978.
Since May, the school site has become a memorial.
More than 200 solar lights line the hill in front of the red brick school, to represent those whose remains have been found. A stone monument is piled high with offerings – children’s shoes and toys, flowers, and tobacco.
Ahead of Mr. Trudeau’s trip, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said Mr. Trudeau must ensure that this visit goes beyond symbolism.
“People are sick and tired of his theatrical, meaningless apologies,” he said.
Norman Yakeleya, the Regional Chief of the Northwest Territories for the Assembly of First Nations who is himself a residential school survivor, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Trudeau’s decision to go to Tofino was a “costly mistake.” The Prime Minister will now have to rebuild his commitment and trust, he added.
“Why go walk on the beach when we are having this significant day of honouring all the families, the unmarked graves, everything with residential school?” he said. “I’m all for family, in the bush, on the land, whatever. But on this day? That really hurt.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, said the Prime Minister has some political work to do to repair damage done by not visiting the community since the discovery of unmarked graves was announced in May.
“I remain really confused about why he did not go there right away,” she said.
As for the Prime Minister’s visit to Tofino, Mr. Trudeau’s office has faced calls to be more clear on whether he paid for the vacation and on discussions that took place with the Ethics Commissioner.
On Oct. 1, the Prime Minister’s Office said the use of a property in Tofino had “been cleared by the Ethics Commissioner.” Last week, PMO spokesperson Alex Wellstead provided further comment to say that the rental was “discussed and reviewed” by the commissioner’s office in 2019 when Mr. Trudeau stayed at the same place.
The office did not consult on it for the most recent trip in September.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is prohibited from publicly discussing consultations undertaken by his office. However, his office noted that Mr. Trudeau is free to release the advice that it provided. The PMO has not shared this information when asked by The Globe.
In an interview Friday, Mr. Dion described the limits on what he can disclose publicly as a “straitjacket.” He said his office does not approve trips, but it consults with public-office holders and advises on whether a vacation would be considered a gift or other benefit that needs to be disclosed. The office also looks at if a person is paying fair market value for the trip and therefore doesn’t need to report the travel.
“The issue is whether the Prime Minister or other people are willing to disclose it to the media – to the public, through the media, and it’s for them to decide,” Mr. Dion said. “I believe profoundly in transparency. I believe in sunshine being the best cleanser.”
Mr. Dion said he can’t say whether his office is investigating the most recent trip and notifies an individual if an investigation has been launched. The PMO did not respond Friday when asked if Mr. Trudeau had been informed if a probe was under way.
“In politics if you’ve got nothing to hide, you answer the question,” Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus said.
With a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa
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