Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a visit Monday to the indigenous community of Kamloops where the remains of 215 children were found in May at a former residential school, apologizing for not coming sooner.
The visit followed strong criticisms directed at Trudeau for ignoring an earlier invitation to the community on the first national day of truth and reconciliation on September 30, instead going on a family vacation.
“Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, (everyone has) talked about me and that’s on me. I take responsibility for that,” he told a news conference.
Seated next to him, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc chief Rosanne Casimir said: “It was a long-awaited moment to receive a personal hand of recognition and sympathy regarding this horrific confirmation of unmarked graves from the Canadian head of state.”
She said her community had felt “shock, anger, sorrow and disbelief” over Trudeau’s September 30 snub, but added: “Today is about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake.”
Trudeau has made fence-mending with Canada’s more than 600 indigenous tribes a priority of his administration, and named the national day of reconciliation meant to pay tribute to victims of the residential schools at the centre of a failed policy of force assimilation of indigenous peoples.
Since the first discoveries in Kamloops five months ago, more than 1,200 unmarked indigenous graves have been found at other former school sites, and searches have been launched across Canada for more.
Trudeau noted that requests have poured in for help in identifying graves and recovering remains, and vowed his government “will be there with as much as is necessary (for communities) to be able to get closure, and to move forward.”
“Before we can get into reconciliation, we need to get to truth,” he added. “We need families be able to grieve, to heal. To do that we need to support them in every way we can.”
From the late 19th century to the 1990s, some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly enrolled at the schools across Canada.
Students spent months or years isolated from their families, and were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.
Thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect. Many more became detached or alienated.
Today those experiences are blamed for a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as high suicide rates, in indigenous communities.