OTTAWA -- Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that his visit to the First Nation community Monday is “bittersweet” following his notable absence from their ceremony to recognize the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Chief Casimir said Trudeau’s decision to forgo their two invitations to instead vacation with his family in Tofino, B.C. on Sept. 30, caused “shock, anger, and sorrow and disbelief” in the community.

“Today is about making some positive steps forward and rectifying a mistake. We wanted to ensure that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited what we refer to as a sacred site,” she said.

“It was a long awaited moment to receive a personal hand of recognition and sympathy regarding this horrific confirmation of unmarked graves from the Canadian head of state.”

Earlier in the year, it was reported that some 200 unmarked graves had been found near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Parliament passed a bill last June to recognize a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation each Sept. 30. It is a statutory holiday for federal workers, but the government has stressed it should be a day for reflection.

After listening to the chief’s remarks, Trudeau responded, noting yet again that he wishes he had been with the grieving community and “deeply” regrets his decision to go on vacation instead.

“But I am here today to take the hand extended by the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc and so many Indigenous Canadians across the country who have every reason in the world to feel pessimistic, and bleak about the future,” he said.

Trudeau said Chief Casimir could have turned her back on him, but instead she invited him back.

“She reached out, she said ‘please come, listen and learn and we will walk this path together and that is why I’m here,’” he said.

He said he and his government are committed to do better.

“There is so much more to do and we will always be there to do that work,” he said. “Making sure that we’re supporting the language and the culture that has caused the strength and vibrancy of this community for generations, despite the efforts of previous governments to eradicate them.”

The prime minister also said that flags on federal buildings, including on Parliament Hill, will be lowered to half-mast every Sept. 30 to recognize the day.

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations was also in attendance on Monday. She thanked Trudeau for coming but said it’s time for actual progress, not more words.

“The key part of our work together is that we change behaviours, that we take concrete actions, rather than empty words and empty hollow apologies,” said RoseAnne Archibald.

“I will continue to call for accountability. Someone must be charged for the deaths of our children. There must be examination to determine if some of our children were murdered. Canada must be held accountable for their genocidal laws and policies. Canada must not be allowed to investigate itself.”

Chief Casimir said concretely, she is seeking to establish a firm, ongoing commitment from the federal government to help revitalize First Nations languages, culture, and traditions.

She is also calling on the government to turn over any documents held by Ottawa or the Catholic Church that would help discover those lost at former residential schools and to help develop a community healing centre for survivors.

“Survivors have been triggered over and over, and are overwhelmed with sadness and grief and anger. Even those who have made great progress on their healing journey have suffered a great setback,” she said.

After the prime minister left the event, other Indigenous leaders were asked about their impressions of the prime minister’s remarks.

Shuswap Nation Tribal Council Chief Wayne Christian said he’s left with “frustration and anger.”

“I’ll be honest, because politicians have a tendency to, especially when there’s big media, to say what they think the public wants to hear. He did not say anything that I saw as concrete steps,” he said.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.