OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a backlash over his decision to fly to British Columbia to spend time with his family on the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said it is shocked that Trudeau “ducked out entirely” from a national day set aside to reflect on the legacy of residential schools.
Lynne Groulx, the head of the political advocacy organization for Indigenous women, said in a statement that she is astounded by the "sheer level of callousness" of Trudeau's decision to take a trip to B.C. rather than attending events marking the historic day.
She added it showed "disregard for what the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have endured as a result of colonization.”
The prime minister flew to Tofino, B.C., on Thursday, where Global News filmed him walking along the beach at one point, refusing to comment.
Later Thursday, Trudeau tweeted that he had spent some time that day having telephone conversations with residential school survivors from across Canada, "hearing their stories and getting their advice on the path forward." A spokesman said Thursday the Prime Minister's Office would not be sharing the details of the conversations, described as "private calls with individuals."
Thursday marked the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which was created this spring in response to one of the 94 calls to action put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that documented atrocities committed against First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in government-funded, church-run residential schools over more than a century.
The day was already known as Orange Shirt Day, in honour of the experience of Phyllis Webstad, from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in B.C., whose gift of clothing from her grandmother was taken away on her first day at a residential school.
Groulx said in the statement that while Trudeau was not in the public eye, millions of other people across the country wore orange shifts, spoke out on social media and took part in ceremonies, reflecting on "the dark history of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people and what needs to be improved."
Trudeau had participated in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on Wednesday night near the Centennial Flame, where mounds of stuffed toys and pairs of children's shoes have been left in honour of the children who never returned from residential schools.
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, which includes the Tofino area, said Friday the organization had not heard from Trudeau and had no idea he was going to be in the territory on Thursday. She said he could have joined the Nuu-chah-nulth in Tofino for some brief remarks and left.
“I understand he's on vacation and wants some time off, but he should’ve prioritized the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This is big for us and for us here. It was a really important day," Sayers said.
"I always reflect back to how Trudeau says Indigenous Peoples are the most important relationship but he doesn’t show it. He always says good things but doesn’t follow it up with actions.”
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who said she took part in a ceremony commemorating the day in her Thunder Bay, Ont., constituency, declined to answer questions Friday about Trudeau's trip.
“I can’t speak to other people’s scheduling,” Hajdu said. “What I saw in my community was a commitment to reconciliation."
"For me, it is hard to put into words how moving that day was," she said at a press conference in Ottawa on Friday.
Hajdu said reconciliation was not just "one day" or "a T-shirt," but an ongoing process. She said the "best way to reconcile" was to get to know Indigenous people in your community "one by one."
Trudeau's daily public itinerary said at first that he was in “private meetings” in Ottawa on Thursday, though this was later changed to reflect his actual location.
The Prime Minister's Office did not immediately respond to a request for more details Friday.
Groulx said Trudeau's decision to “flit off to Tofino for a holiday” rather than "taking the time his government set aside to reflect upon the tragedy of the Indian residential schools" gave the impression he did not take the issue seriously.
“It is almost as if he checked off one of the calls to action of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) by declaring the statutory holiday, and then wiped his hands and said ‘job done, let’s move on,’” she added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.
— With files from Nick Wells in Vancouver.
The Canadian Press