Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited an Indigenous community in British Columbia, following the discovery earlier this year of more than 200 unmarked graves of children who died at the nearby church-run Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Seated beside Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir on Monday, Trudeau said he wanted to “work together” with Indigenous communities on addressing historical wrongs. He did not announce new funding for residential school survivors or other specific initiatives.
The discovery of the remains of some 215 children, some as young as three, buried under the former school touched off a firestorm of anger and a national campaign dubbed “Every Child Matters”.
“Words do matter,” Trudeau said. “An apology recognising the harms that were caused is the first step … but it’s not just about words, it’s about actions.”
More than a dozen other Indigenous communities in Canada began searching for mass graves using ground-penetrating radar, following the grim revelations in Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in May, revealing thousands of remains.
“No words can express the level of grief and sorrow that the confirmation of unmarked graves of missing children from the Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) and other residential schools have brought to Indigenous People across the country,” Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, located in central British Columbia in western Canada, said in a statement earlier this month.
Trudeau’s visit to Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation came after he faced criticism for going to the beach on Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, ignoring an earlier invitation to visit the Indigenous community.
Trudeau, who was re-elected as Canada’s prime minister in September, said again on Monday that it was a mistake to go on a family vacation that day. He first apologized for the trip in early October.
“I have many regrets about September 30 and my decision to travel,” Trudeau said on Monday. “Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, people talked about me. That’s on me.”
He said he was “grateful” to Chief Casimir for welcoming him to the community. “She could have chosen to turn her back on me and the federal government,” Trudeau said. Instead “she said ‘please come and learn and we will walk this path together’ and that is why I am here”.
Trudeau also said Canada will “always” lower its flags to half staff on September 30 going forward.
For more than 100 years, Canadian authorities forcibly separated thousands of Indigenous children from their families and made them attend residential schools, which aimed to sever Indigenous family and cultural ties and assimilate the children into white Canadian society.
The schools, which were run by churches from the 1870s until 1996, were rife with physical, mental and sexual abuse, neglect and other forms of violence, and they created a cycle of intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people across Canada.
Founded in 1890 and run by the Catholic Church, the Kamloops Indian Residential School eventually became the largest school in Canada’s residential school system, counting 500 children at its enrollment peak in the early 1950s.
A national commission of inquiry into residential schools, known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 2015 found that the policy was an act of “cultural genocide”. It also issued 94 calls to action to address the harms caused by the system.
According to an analysis from the National Post, a conservative newspaper, conducted in June: 13 of those recommendations have been enacted, the government has taken some action on 60 recommendations and has made no real steps on 21 calls to action.
Members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation on Monday also pressed Trudeau for funding for a new Indigenous healing centre to address the mental health crisis and “intergenerational trauma” caused by residential schools and other colonial practices, the community said in a statement ahead of Trudeau’s visit.
At Monday’s event, Trudeau was also asked by journalists what the government plans to do about the large number of Indigenous children who are currently being taken away from their families and communities by social services agencies and placed into foster care.
He did not announce any new or specific commitments.
More than half of Canadian children in foster care are Indigenous, according to government data, despite them accounting for less than eight per cent of the child population.
More than 14,000 Indigenous kids in Canada are living with foster families in private homes after being taken away from Indigenous birth parents following complaints of neglect, abuse or other issues.