Activists at a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation rally in Toronto (Image: Sipa USA/Shawn Goldberg)

Orange shirts were worn across Canada last Thursday as the country observed a national day of mourning for Indigenous children. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went surfing.

Trudeau apologised for taking the holiday to Tofino — the Byron Bay of Canada — on the day his own government set aside to honour more than a thousand unmarked graves discovered at residential schools across the country.

He also apologised for choosing not to attend the local First Nations reconciliation ceremony in his holiday spot of Tofino, a major misstep for a leader still shaking off blackface scandals and the firing of the Indigenous minister.

It’s a bad look in a country where Indigenous people are, by comparison to Australia, well and truly integral to the national and political conversation. Dozens of treaties have been signed with Canada’s First Nations people, with several prior to Canada’s confederation still active today. Indeed, Australia remains the only Commonwealth country to have never signed a treaty with its Indigenous people.

Canada actually recognised First Nations peoples in its constitution, so provincal governments have to consult with Indigenous Canadians and protect their rights when they could be affected by proposed legislation. In 1993, Indigenous people were even given the right to shape their own forms of government — called the Aboriginal Right to Self-Government Policy — so Indigenous communities can control the administration of their people, land, resources and related programs and policies.

When more than 1300 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were discovered at dozens of former residential schools (government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture) Canadians were devastated.

Dozens of small shoes lined the steps of government buildings, schools and churches countrywide to represent the dead children, while picket signs mourning the monumental loss of life appeared and remain, even now, on many lawns. Many Canadian flags remain at half-mast months on. 

The Trudeau government pledged C$27 million in immediate funding to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to identify the unmarked graves and launched the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Falling on September 30, it was a solemn day of mourning where many Canadians donned an orange shirt to represent an Indigenous girl named Phyllis who was forced to remove hers at a residential school in the 1970s. The last Indigenous residential school in Canada closed in 1996.

Trudeau’s decision to take a trip — flying the government’s Bombardier Challenger jet, no less — on the day is a depressingly familiar story for Australians still rolling their eyes at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s travel itinerary over the past few years.

Tone-deaf was not nearly enough to describe the PM’s holiday in Hawaii while Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire crisis in 2019-20. Morrison’s various ancestral jaunts around the UK in June while attending the G7 summit drew fury as at least 38,000 Australians remained stranded overseas, unable to return home amid strict COVID-19 flight caps and border closures.

Trudeau, reeling from the scandal, telephoned Tk’emlúps Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir and offered her an apology, his office confirmed.

“And, following his participation in [Wednesday] night’s ceremony marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, he is speaking … with residential school survivors from across the country,” a spokesperson said.

But critics have been quick to point out that Trudeau is yet to visit the burial site of the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia, where more than 200 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were discovered earlier this year.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called the prime minister’s holiday a “slap in the face” to the families of residential school victims.

It’s a major blow to Trudeau’s “good guy” image — the son of much-loved former PM Pierre Trudeau, Justin has long tried to shake off his silver-spoon reputation.

Don Martin, a well-known TV host in Canada, put it bluntly: “You could not have created a loftier aura of upper-crust entitlement if Trudeau had jumped on a pony for a polo match before heading off with the hounds for a little fox hunting”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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