OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he regrets the mistake of travelling to British Columbia to join his vacationing family on a day meant to honour Indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential school system.
Trudeau’s presence in Tofino, B.C., last Thursday came as a shock after his itinerary initially said he was in Ottawa.
Global News filmed the prime minister walking along a beach and the resulting video shows him declining to offer any comment.
Reports of his activities on that day sparked widespread backlash from Indigenous leaders, who felt it was disrespectful of him not to join other politicians in attending events held to honour the children who never came home.
Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday that the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was an important moment for all people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to reflect.
“Travelling on Sept. 30 was a mistake, and I regret it,” he said during a news conference held to announce mandatory vaccination rules for federal workers and travellers.
Trudeau’s office said Sunday the prime minister spoke with Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir on Saturday and apologized for failing to accept invitations to mark Sept. 30 in the community where more than 200 unmarked graves were located at the site of a former residential school.
“I want to thank Chief Casimir of Tk’emlups for the conversation we had over the weekend in which I apologized for not being there with her and her community for this important day,” Trudeau said.
“I committed to going to visit the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc community in the coming weeks. There’s a lot of work for us all to do. And I’m committed to doing it.”
The prime minister’s itinerary for Sept. 30 originally said he was in private meetings in Ottawa. But spokeswoman Ann-Clara Vaillancourt later confirmed that Trudeau had in fact flown to B.C. to be with his family for a few days.
She pointed out that he had participated in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on Sept. 29, the eve of Canada’s inaugural Truth and Reconciliation Day.
Trudeau rejected a suggestion Wednesday his published schedule for Sept. 30 was untruthful.
“There was no lie. The itinerary said that I had private meetings. And I had calls for a number of hours that day with survivors of Indian residential schools.”
Trudeau noted that during the Parliament Hill ceremony he spoke of the need for all people to focus on what happened in the schools and to understand the truths of the past, but also to be present for healing and to build better for the future.
“That’s also what I heard from survivors, who I spoke to throughout the day. We all have work to do and I assume my responsibility to do better in the future.”
Trudeau’s government created the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to commemorate the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools.
Many children suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and neglect and more than 4,000 are believed to have died.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday that Trudeau’s actions last week were careless and “really hurt a lot of people.”
Lynne Groulx, chief executive of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, thanked Trudeau for the apology, but added: “Please do better in the future. Sadly, we recognize that this moment of contrition comes after much public pressure, not necessarily because you have suddenly seen the light. It will now be up to you to rebuild trust with our communities.”
Trudeau could start by implementing the recommendations of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Groulx added.