Singh visits unmarked school graves: ‘The genocide hits us hard’
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh focused the federal election campaign Friday on the hardships facing Indigenous communities in Canada amid the horrific discoveries of unmarked burial sites near former residential schools.
Singh made the campaign’s first stop in an Indigenous community with a visit to the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, which announced in June a preliminary finding of
751 unmarked graves at the location of a former residential school.
“This genocide hits us hard,” Singh said after he visited the grave sites.
“This genocide against Indigenous people hit so hard because it was conducted by the state, by institutions that are supposed to protect people,” he added. “And for the state to perpetrate a genocide against its own people is one of the most heinous acts, the most heinous crimes that can be committed.”
The NDP leader made this visit with his wife, who is pregnant with their first child. Singh said he offered a prayer while there, noting that the kirpan he wears as part of his Sikh faith is a symbol of his commitment to fight for justice.
When asked how he felt, surrounded by unmarked graves of children with his own baby on the way, Singh choked up and had to pause before saying it had a different impact because of his own family, but it’s not about him.
He said it is about Indigenous people being denied justice and he repeated his calls for a special prosecutor and that all residential schools’ records from institutions such as governments and churches be released.
Late last month, Singh became the first federal leader to meet with Indigenous chiefs at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of more than 200 children.
The leaders of the two largest parties were forced to address the future of reconciliation with First Nations as they campaigned in Winnipeg on Friday to make announcements on other subjects.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reiterated his support for reconciliation, as he kicked off the day with an announcement of new funding to support the safe return to work and school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Justice Minister David Lametti continues to work with Indigenous stakeholders “to look for consequences and to seek accountability in every possible way” for what has occurred at residential schools.
Trudeau stressed that work is being done by police and prosecutors who are independent of the political process.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole highlighted his own visit to Cowessess last month as he accused Trudeau of not acting decisively enough to pursue reconciliation.
“With a Conservative government we will have more than just words, we will have action,” said O’Toole, who was also in the Manitoba capital, where he was highlighting a promised hiring incentive in his party’s platform. “We will deliver what Mr. Trudeau promises but never delivers.”
Trudeau defended his government’s record, saying “what took generations, and in some cases, even centuries to break will take more than a few years to fix.”
He said more work needs to be done to ensure higher-quality education for Indigenous children, settling land claims and moving forward on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Trudeau met with three Manitoba chiefs on Friday after his government last week committed $321 million in new funding for programs to help Indigenous communities search burial sites at former residential schools and support survivors.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said it was a “good gesture,” but more resources would be needed to address the problem.