NDP Leader Singh brings campaign to residential school grave site in Saskatchewan

Federal party leaders campaigned on the Prairies Friday.


Cowessess First Nation is located 160 km east of Regina. Photo courtesy: Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

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 was to make 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.

Singh plans to visit the grave sites.

Late last month, Singh became the first federal leader to meet with Indigenous chiefs at the site of the former Kamloops Indian School after the discovery of what is believed to be the remains of 215 children.

The leaders of the two largest parties were forced to address the issue as they converged in Winnipeg on Friday to make announcements on other subjects.

A memorial outside the former Kamloops residential school. Photo: APTN file

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.

But 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.

“Mr. Trudeau, I know cares, but he never acts. 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.

Boys stand outside of St. Anne’s Residential School in 1945. Photo: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

“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.

“There have also been far too many continued tragedies and continued hardships. And that’s what we continue to work on. It is not an easy journey towards reconciliation we are on, but is one that we are on strongly, firmly, resolutely,” said Trudeau.

O’Toole said if he forms a government it will work with Indigenous leaders to restore trust that he characterized as lacking.

‘Core of reconciliation’

“At the core of reconciliation is restoring trust between Indigenous people and the federal government. And when you make a promise with no plan to get there, you’re eroding trust.”

On Thursday, the leaders battled over the right prescription to help the country’s health-care systems and how much more funding provinces require to meet their needs during and after the pandemic.

O’Toole said he would boost federal funding for provincially run health-care systems by six per cent annually. Speaking in French at a stop in Ottawa, O’Toole left the door open to offering more money if the national economy grows faster than expected, which would give federal coffers extra cash to potentially splash around.

Speaking in Victoria, B.C., where he outlined plans to improve wages and conditions in long-term care facilities, Trudeau said the country needs to invest more in health care and that his government would be there to increase provincial transfers, although he did not detail when or by how much.

Singh took aim at Trudeau over the Liberal government’s track record on health-care spending during a campaign stop in Edmonton where he highlighted his party’s pledge for a $250 million fund to help train and hire 2,000 nurses.

The NDP leader said the Liberals criticized the previous Conservative government for cutting funding to provinces in 2014, only to turn around and maintain funding increases at that level once in office.