OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire Thursday for spending part of Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation flying to Tofino, B.C., to join his family.
But his office denied Trudeau was taking a vacation on a day meant to commemorate the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children who were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools.
Many of those children suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and neglect. More than 4,000 are believed to have died.
Spokesman Alex Wellstead said Trudeau spent "hours" on the phone Thursday speaking to survivors of the schools, "to hear their stories of trauma and healing, to hear their advice on the path forward."
Trudeau's itinerary for the day initially said he was in "private meetings" in Ottawa.
That was later updated on the Prime Minister's Office website to say he was in private meetings in Tofino. His office confirmed Trudeau went to Tofino to spend a few days with this family.
But Wellstead said just because Trudeau was in Tofino doesn't mean he spent the day lounging on the beach — although Global BC did film him taking a walk along the beach at one point, refusing to comment.
Wellstead said Trudeau will continue working while in Tofino on other government business, including presumably putting together his new post-election cabinet.
However, a spokeswoman for Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole slammed Trudeau for using the day to travel to B.C.
"Truth and Reconciliation Day shouldn’t be treated like a holiday but that’s what Justin Trudeau did," said Chelsea Tucker.
"This is the pattern Canadians have come to know with Justin Trudeau. He says nice things about reconciliation but never follows through. As Prime Minister, Erin O'Toole will always mark this day with the respect and dignity it deserves."
O'Toole attended a Truth and Reconciliation Day ceremony Wednesday night on Parliament Hill, at which Trudeau and several survivors spoke about the importance of Canada coming to terms with its ugly history of residential schools.
Tucker said O'Toole spent Thursday in Ottawa "taking the opportunity to remember and honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities."
Wellstead said he hopes O'Toole took the opportunity to actually speak with some survivors, as Trudeau did.
He would not go into details of Trudeau's phone calls "because they were private calls with individuals."
But he said survivors "shared their heartbreaking stories of what they experienced and the lasting impacts. Some expressed hopefulness about the path forward and the importance of this day and the opportunity for Canadians to continue learning about our country."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh attended an "orange shirt day" walk and ceremony Thursday outside Vancouver's Aboriginal Friendship Centre, according to a spokeswoman.
Parliament passed a bill last June to create an annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation each Sept. 30. It is a statutory holiday for federal workers but the Trudeau government has said it's intended to be a day of reflection, akin to Remembrance Day, not just a day off.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.
Joan Bryden and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press