Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was publicly reprimanded by the chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation after a ceremony in which he paid his first respects to missing children believed to be buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Mr. Trudeau bowed his head slightly at the rebuke and apologized for his belated visit, more than two weeks after the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and five months after the First Nation’s announcement that ground-penetrating radar had detected up to 215 unmarked graves on the school’s grounds. But the Prime Minister brought with him none of the commitments the community has demanded.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told the ceremony Monday the Prime Minister’s visit was “bittersweet,” because Mr. Trudeau had not acknowledged the nation’s invitations for him to attend a ceremony to commemorate the national day on Sept. 30. Ms. Casimir thanked the Prime Minister for paying his respects to the missing on Monday, but she said the community needs help to identify those buried in the graves. Mr. Trudeau visited the unmarked gravesites with the chief, without media in attendance.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was created as a statutory holiday by Mr. Trudeau’s government to honour survivors of residential schools and to commemorate thousands of Indigenous children who died at the institutions.

Mr. Trudeau attended an event on Parliament Hill with survivors of the schools the night before the national day, but did not participate in any public events on the day itself. He instead travelled to Tofino, a popular B.C. surfing destination, with family.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here on September 30. It was a mistake,” Mr. Trudeau said Monday after hearing survivors and leaders speak.

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

Ms. Casimir said the First Nation had sent two letters of invitation to Mr. Trudeau’s office in which it asked him to participate in the Sept. 30 event. The request was about him showing his “commitment to rectifying the historical wrongs of residential schools and to grieve with our residential school survivors,” she said.

But Ms. Casimir said that the community “quietly” learned through a journalist on that day that Mr. Trudeau was in Tofino.

“The shock and sorrow and disbelief was palpable in our community,” she said. “And it rippled throughout the world to say the least. Today is about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake.”

Ms. Casimir said now is the time to commit to a long process of healing, peace and restitution for all those affected by residential schools. She also said she accepts Mr. Trudeau’s apology.

The gathering on Monday was small. Most of the seats at the open-air event at the nation’s Pow Wow Arbour were empty, a reflection of the community’s anger over the Prime Minister’s Sept. 30 snub. Speaker after speaker called on Mr. Trudeau to offer more than “empty words.” The First Nation has asked for funding for a healing centre, and for Canada to release records on student attendance at the Kamloops school to help with the identification of missing children.

More broadly, Indigenous leaders have criticized the federal government for its role in releasing the Catholic Church from its financial obligations to residential school survivors under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They have also criticized Ottawa’s attempts to fight Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) orders aimed at redressing discrimination towards Indigenous children.

Ottawa has until the end of October to determine if it will appeal a federal court ruling upholding two CHRT orders. Mr. Trudeau said Monday that his government is committed to compensating Indigenous children.

He did not announce additional commitments to help find, identify and bring home the remains of children who died at residential schools in Kamloops and across the country.

“These past months have been an awakening for many Canadians. It’s easy to get shocked and outraged and say, ‘Well that has to change, someone has to fix it’,” he said. But he said the federal government alone can’t repair the damage done by the residential school system. “There is a lot of work to do.”

B.C. Assembly First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee voiced the frustration that was evident at the gathering. “We are beyond theatrical platitudes and words,” he told the event. “We need action.”

In its final report in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found Canada’s residential school system was a policy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented more than 4,100 children’s deaths at residential schools – many from disease, neglect, malnutrition and abuse – and estimates thousands more died.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said at Monday’s event that she has been to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community three times since the gravesites were discovered. “Our babies are buried here,” she said.

Thousands of Indigenous children are buried in unmarked graves, she added, as she pledged to travel to as many former residential schools as possible to offer tobacco and prayers for healing.

“Canada must be held accountable for their genocidal laws and policies,” she said. “Canada must not be allowed to investigate itself.”

Charlotte Manual, a survivor of the Kamloops school, led the gathering in a moment of silence for missing children across the country. “I was lost when I left from that school up there,” she said. Her granddaughter Ashley Michel tearfully addressed the Prime Minister.

“I’m hurting,” she said. “My heart aches for the children who were scared and lonely and just wanted to go home.”

Kamloops was at one point the largest of Canada’s residential schools. It operated from 1890 to 1969. For most of that time, it was run by a Catholic order, but the federal government ran it as a day school for nine more years before it closed in 1978.

The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2021