Residential school survivor criticizes Trudeau for travelling on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

·5 min read
Evelyn Korkmaz is a survivor of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School. She attended the school between 1969 and 1972.   (Submitted by Evelyn Korkmaz - image credit)
Evelyn Korkmaz is a survivor of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School. She attended the school between 1969 and 1972. (Submitted by Evelyn Korkmaz - image credit)

A residential school survivor says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to travel for a family vacation to Tofino, B.C. on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation shows "his words don't match his actions."

Evelyn Korkmaz, who survived the St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., criticized the prime minister for instead taking part in a Parliament Hill ceremony on the eve of the new federal statutory holiday meant to honour the children who died in residential schools and the survivors and communities affected by the system.

"It's like celebrating Remembrance Day … or reflecting on Remembrance Day on November the 10th rather than November the 11th," she told CBC News.

Korkmaz, who said she was abused during her time at St. Anne's, was in Ottawa Thursday to mark the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

She is one of the St. Anne's survivors embroiled in a legal battle with the federal government over their compensation cases.

"And this just shows us survivors that he doesn't actually want to meet with us. He's just hoping that we will just disappear into the sunset," she said.

Trudeau has faced sharp criticism over his decision to travel Thursday. While his official itinerary said he would be in "private meetings" in Ottawa that day, it was later updated to reflect the fact that he was in Tofino.

His office noted that the prime minister spoke at a sombre ceremony on Parliament Hill Wednesday night, where residential school survivors shared stories of intense trauma. Trudeau also tweeted that he spoke by phone with residential school survivors "from across the country."

A 'colossal failure of leadership'

The president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has also criticized Trudeau for not stopping in Kamloops to attend a ceremony to commemorate unmarked graves found near a former residential school. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said the prime minister "turned his back on Indigenous children."

Phillip told CBC Radio's "The Early Edition" Friday that it all amounts to a "colossal failure of leadership" on Trudeau's part.

Phillip said the prime minister had been invited twice by the chief of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Nation to attend a commemoration ceremony Thursday. The First Nation is near the site of the former Kamloops residential school where some 200 unmarked graves were discovered this spring.

At a press conference a day before, Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said she "did hold out hope that (Trudeau) would be here today."

Phillip has been a frequent critic of the Trudeau government, particularly over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. He accused the prime minister of "absolute hypocrisy" for not accepting Casimir's invitations.

"During the election, he was taking a knee at every opportunity to demonstrate his support for residential school survivors," he said. "And yet, when the rubber hits the road, he ticked off to Tofino."

Trudeau planning to visit First Nation in Kamloops: PMO

Later Friday, Trudeau's spokesperson Alex Wellstead told CBC News in a media statement that the prime minister is planning to visit the community soon.

"Our office has spoken directly with Chief Casimir today. The prime minister will be reaching out to speak directly with Chief Casimir, and we are making arrangements to visit Tk'emlups te Secwepemc in the near future," he said.

"The prime minister spoke with eight residential school survivors from across the country over several hours yesterday. It was an important opportunity to hear their stories of trauma and healing, and to hear their advice on the path forward."

At a press conference in Ottawa, Health Minister Patty Hajdu repeatedly ducked questions about her reaction to the prime minister's decision to fly to Tofino on a day meant to be about solemn reflection.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Hajdu said that she attended a commemorative event in her Thunder Bay riding, calling it a "profound experience." The new federal statutory holiday, to be marked annually on Sept. 30, will have a "profound legacy for Canadians and for Canada," she said.

When a reporter asked why she chose not to take the day off — implying that Trudeau had done so — Hajdu said she could not speak about the "scheduling" of other people.

"I know the prime minister was at an event the evening before with survivors but I honestly don't have the details of his schedule," she said. "I can just speak to mine."

Hajdu said the prime minister does meet with Indigenous people to talk about what needs to be done to advance the cause of reconciliation.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault also faced questions about Trudeau's trip during an appearance on Power & Politics Thursday.

Guilbeault, who sponsored the bill to create the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, said he marked the occasion by taking part in a reconciliation walk in Montreal with other cabinet ministers and politicians.

WATCH: Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is asked about Trudeau's trip

Asked if it was a mistake for the prime minister to take a holiday Thursday, Guilbeault wouldn't say.

"What I can tell you is that I've had numerous conversations with the prime minister over the last two years on this very issue of reconciliation and I think viewers will see that he takes this very seriously," he said.

The office of Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole released a statement accusing Trudeau of treating a solemn occasion "like a holiday."

"This is the pattern Canadians have come to know with Justin Trudeau," O'Toole's office said. "He says nice things about reconciliation but never follows through."

O'Toole's office said the Conservative leader marked the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by "taking the opportunity to remember and honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities."

Incoming NDP MP Blake Desjarlais, who is Métis, told CBC News the prime minister should apologize.

"I think an apology is necessary because Indigenous people have given something … a really difficult part of themselves … to the country," he said. "And our top official wasn't there to listen."

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