Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Kamloops on Monday as an invited guest of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc as the First Nation marked the first anniversary of the confirmation of 215 unmarked graves on the site of a former residential school.
Trudeau received a mixed reception as he arrived and made his way through the large crowd while flanked by several members of his security detail.
There were many well-wishers who greeted the prime minister warmly and asked to take selfies with him.
But he was also followed closely by a boisterous crowd of singers and drummers who wanted to get their own message across.
“Canada is all Indian land!” they sang while loudly beating their drums. “RCMP has no jurisdiction!”
Trudeau mostly ignored the group which also sang “We don’t need your constitution!”
But in brief remarks from the podium, the prime minister spoke directly to those singing the protest songs about stolen Indigenous land, telling them he understands their anger while trying to redirect the focus of the event back to the missing children.
“I hear you. This is about remembering those we lost. This is about gathering and reflecting on where we are, and mostly where we need to go all together,” he said.
At a news conference later in the evening, CTV News asked Trudeau if he believes Canada exists on stolen Indigenous land and he did not provide a definitive answer.
“Canada is a country that consists of Indigenous people who have been here for millennia, who welcomed settlers in some cases and were overrun by settlers in others,” he said. “But we’re a country that exists today with a commitment to always learn from the past and always do better.”
Trudeau’s response to the question lasted more than 90 seconds but his answer was ambiguous and it is still not clear whether he believes First Nations had traditional territories they had occupied for thousands of years stolen from them.
“There’s no question that we can go back to the past and see all sorts of terrible things that happened…The story of Canada is the story of people coming together to build a better future for themselves and for their kids than they could gave imagined a generation before,” he concluded.