Standing on a stage with an orange shirt tucked under his blazer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated a promise to Indigenous people: Canada will be by their side as the country works to rebuild trust.
His comments Friday came on the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a somber national holiday established last year to acknowledge the legacy of the residential school system in Canada.
Until 1997, the residential school system saw Indigenous children ripped from their homes and families, only to have them placed in facilities where they were scolded for speaking their language and, in many cases, abused.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. In the last year, over a thousand unmarked graves have been found at residential school sites across the country.
“Scars don’t heal overnight and trust can take a long time to rebuild,” Trudeau said.
“But we will be there together every step of the way.”
Sept. 30 is a day to “grieve,” the prime minister said, and to “take another step” in healing. But, he added, it’s also a day where non-Indigenous peoples must recognize that First Nations, Metis and Inuit “should not have to carry this burden alone.”
“How many times do Indigenous peoples need to tell their stories of trauma, of loss, of pain, of grief, until we absorb those stories as non-Indigenous people and make them our own?” Trudeau asked.
“Because they, too, are the story of Canada and therefore they, too, are the story of each of us.”
That story of Canada, Trudeau said, includes residential schools — where children were “systematically” and “deliberately” taught that they had “no worth” and “no value.”
“That was what residential schools did to generations of Indigenous people who carry that trauma still today,” he said.
Trudeau’s speech and earlier attendance of a sunrise ceremony in the Niagara region mark the first time he has participated in public events on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Last year, the prime minister came under fire for spending the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day on vacation in Tofino, B.C., with his family — despite his official itinerary placing him in private meetings in Ottawa.
He participated in an event the night before but made no public appearances on Sept. 30, 2021.
Speaking on a stage before residential school survivors this year, Trudeau spoke about the role non-Indigenous people have to play in achieving reconciliation.
The prime minister said every single school across the country was a residential school in the sense that they taught all Canadians that Indigenous people “had no worth, had no culture, had no language.”
“We carry that untruth in our learnings directly, from when we were kids in school, but we carry also that learning built into the very stones of our institutions, to the systems that surround us,” Trudeau said.
“Lack of value, of respect, of celebration of Indigenous languages, culture and identity is woven into the fabric of every part of this country because for so many years, it was taught, the same way it was being taught in horrific ways — or attempted to be taught — in horrific ways to Indigenous kids in residential schools.”
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Trudeau said, is not just about Indigenous people or Indigenous reconciliation.
“It is about truth,” he said.
“We all need to open our eyes to the truth of how Canada evolved and came to be, and how we need to make deliberate choices to undo the falsehoods and the wrongness that is part of it.”
Canada is “on the right track” when it comes to achieving this, Trudeau added, but it is going to take “many years” to succeed.
“We must today and every day re-dedicate ourselves to that,” he said.