OTTAWA—The prime minister insisted Monday he shares the impatience of Canadians who want to see concrete action — and fast — that goes beyond the half-masting of flags when it comes to the government’s response to the discovery of an unmarked burial site of Indigenous children.
But beyond pushing the issue to the top of the discussion list for a cabinet meeting Monday, Justin Trudeau stopped well short of committing to any fast action, instead saying the process of reconciliation is one that takes time, and must be done in consultation.
If there was a lesson from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that explored the residential school system and its legacy, Trudeau said, it is that reconciliation is a team effort.
"If it were only done by ministers, if it were only done by Ottawa, to solve these challenges, it might have been done long ago, but it would have been done wrong," he said.
"You cannot move forward on true reconciliation unless it is done in partnership with Indigenous communities, leaders, and individuals."
Both spontaneous demonstrations of grief and some formal actions followed the announcement last week that the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Flags around the country are now at half-mast, including on federal buildings, and memorials consisting of children’s shoes are being set up at legislatures and elsewhere.
Many were calling for Monday night to serve as a national memorial evening marked by teddy bears being placed on porches and lights being left on.
But Indigenous leaders, as well as Opposition politicians were unified Monday in the need for more than just symbols.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole visited an impromptu memorial in Ottawa’s downtown core, bringing with him a teddy bear before later holding a press conference.
He spoke of having to explain the mass grave discovery to his nine-year-old son, and said he wrote to Trudeau requesting he accelerate the specific recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission related to missing children and burial sites.
"Today is not about partisanship or politics," he said.
"It’s simply the right thing for our country to do and an essential step in reconciliation," he said.
In 2009 — when the Conservatives were in power — there had been a request for $1.5 million which would have been used to help locate gravesites, among other things.
The request was denied.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was overcome with emotion Monday when asked what his message was to the families of the children who died in the schools, a number pegged at around 4,000.
His eyes lowered, his jaw clenched, he backed off from the Parliament Hill podium he stood behind, and after seemingly trying to compose himself for nearly a minute, he finally spoke, his voice breaking.
"We’re going to fight for justice for you."
Singh called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons, but, he noted, mere words are not enough, especially from the government.
"The federal government does not get to just make a symbolic gesture here," he said.
"Justin Trudeau doesn’t get to just say ‘I’m sorry about what happened’. He has the power to do more."
While the issue was placed at the top of the cabinet agenda for Monday, there was no sign that something concrete would come out of the meeting,
Trudeau’s office instead pointed to his, and other cabinet ministers’ commitments, to stay on the path of reconciliation and to examples of what’s been done so far.
The landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the legacy of the residential school system in Canada devoted an entire section to missing children and unmarked burial sites and made six related calls to action.
They included setting up a registry of victims of the schools, as well as an online registry of cemeteries. The commission also called for support finding those sites, and a strategy for how they could be documented and maintained.
The 2019 federal budget allocated $33.8 million over three years in connection with those recommendations.
Of that, $2.6 million was used to support the development of a national residential school student death register, which was unveiled in 2019.
The remainder is being allocated to support "the important work of communities in locating, memorializing and commemorating those children who died while at Indian residential schools," Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said in a statement.
Trudeau referred back to that funding Monday as proof of the many actions his government has taken to fulfil the commission’s 94 calls to action over all, but was pressed on the fact that many of the pledges remain a work-in-progress several years out.
With more than a hint of irritation in his voice, Trudeau defended his government’s work to date.
He also appeared to throw the ball back at Canadians to take up the work of reconciliation themselves.
"I think it’s an important moment for non-Indigenous Canadians to realize the extent and the need for even more of this important work," he said.
He also pushed back at those who say a true commitment to reconciliation would also see an end to rounds of legal wrangling over questions of compensation for children harmed by the child welfare system.
Trudeau insisted Monday his government does support compensation, but it’s a question of how much as not all people were harmed evenly by the system.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz