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Canada's Trudeau apologizes for skipping remembrance for Indigenous school victims

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a speech during his visit to Tk'emlups the Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on Monday.
Mert Alper Dervis
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a speech during his visit to Tk'emlups the Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on Monday.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in person to Indigenous leaders after skipping a remembrance for victims and survivors of residential schools.

Trudeau visited the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Monday to offer his mea culpa to Chief Rosanne Casimir for missing the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, approved by Canada's parliament in the spring. The prime minister reportedly did not acknowledge invitations to attend the Sept. 30 ceremony, opting instead for a seaside holiday with his family.

"I am here today to say I wish I had been here a few weeks ago, and I deeply regret it," Trudeau told the community in British Columbia.

"Instead of talking about truth and reconciliation, people talked about me, and that's on me," he said. "I take responsibility for that."

From 1831 until the 1990s, Canada's residential school system forcibly separated some 150,000 Indigenous children from their families — subjecting many to starvation and physical and sexual abuse.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc nation is located near one such school in Kamloops, British Columbia, where the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered in May. More bodies have been found in other Indigenous communities, and the Canadian government has acknowledged that thousands of children died of disease and other causes.

Casimir said the First Nations sent two letters to Trudeau's office inviting him to attend the ceremony as a way of showing his "commitment to rectifying the historical wrongs of residential schools and to grieve with our residential school survivors."

Instead, the community learned from a journalist on Sept. 30 that the prime minister, whose official itinerary placed him in private meetings in Ottawa, was in fact on vacation with his family in Tofino on Vancouver Island.

"The shock and sorrow and disbelief was palpable in our community," she said Monday, adding that "Today is about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake." Trudeau had spoken by phone with Casimir earlier this month to offer his apology for the snub, but Monday was his first in-person meeting with her.

The event was sparsely attended, according to The Globe and Mail, which said it was "a reflection of the community's anger" directed at the prime minister. Several speakers called on Trudeau to offer more than "empty words," according to the newspaper.

"It was a mistake and I understand that it made a very difficult day even harder," Trudeau said Monday. "You didn't have to invite me back, I know that. Thank you for doing so."

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Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.