Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien says the abuse of Indigenous children that took place in Canadian residential schools while he was Minister of Indigenous Affairs was never brought to his attention at the time.
“This problem was never mentioned to me when I was minister,” Chrétien told the popular Quebec television program “Tout le monde en parle” on Sunday night.
Chrétien, who was Minister of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1974, said he knew that residential schools existed and how difficult the experience was, comparing it to his own time in conventional boarding schools.
“I was a boarding student, from six to 21 years old,” he said. “I had my fill of baked beans and oatmeal. Life at boarding school was certainly difficult, extremely difficult.”
Chrétien’s comments drew immediate criticism.
The discovery of hundreds of nameless graves at residential school sites across Canada over the summer revived conversations about the discriminatory system designed to assimilate indigenous children. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report documented physical and sexual abuse and malnutrition suffered by children in schools.
At a news conference in Ottawa, along with survivors from residential schools, new Democratic Rep. Charlie Angus said he just doesn’t believe Chrétien.
“It’s outrageous for Jean Chrétien today to try to cover up his role at St. Anne’s residential school, because he knew it,” Angus said, referring to a facility in Fort Albany, Ontario. “People came up to him and begged him to do the right thing, and he ignored them.”
Angus shared on Twitter a handwritten letter that was sent to Chrétien by a teacher in 1968, denouncing the conditions at St. Anne’s and referring to the “sterile, rigid and loveless atmosphere” of the school.
“Jean Chrétien never responded,” Angus said. “Imagine if you had read that letter and thought, ‘I should do something.’ How many children could have been saved because some of the worst crimes were being committed at the time? “
The 87-year-old former politician was invited to the show to talk about his new book, published in English as “My Stories, My Times Vol. 2.” He was asked about a passage in which he says that he advises the queen not to apologize to the Maori people of New Zealand for what the British colonial administration did to them.
Chrétien says he never heard of abuse at #ResidentialSchools during his time as minister. #JeanChrétien
“Your Majesty, if you start, I will have to bring him to Canada and since we have several hundred indigenous communities, he will be on his knees for at least two years,” he recalled telling the Queen in the book.
On Sunday, Chrétien defended his words saying that excuses are good, but offering a future to indigenous peoples is better. “We cannot rewrite history,” Chrétien said.
“Terrible things have happened, not only in Canada. In the United States, it is the army that destroyed the indigenous peoples. Here, we had missionaries who were sent, it was less dangerous.”
National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations raised doubts Monday about the sincerity of Chrétien’s comments.
Chrétien says the queen’s apology will keep her on her knees for two years, but didn’t she hear about the institutes of assimilation and genocide? she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s remember that he promoted the 1969 White Paper on Assimilation and Genocide that launched First Nations activism.”
Innu author Michel Jean, another guest on the talk show, criticized Chrétien’s comparison of residential schools with his own boarding school experience.
“Mr. Chrétien, with all due respect, doesn’t realize exactly what a residential school was,” said Jean. “And he is not alone.” Jean explained that most people tend to mistakenly associate these institutions with schools, where you “teach people to write.”
While Chrétien said she never heard of or experienced abuse while at boarding school, hinting that “he must not have been a pretty boy at the time,” Jean recalled completely different stories from her family.
“Someone in my family, who went to a residential school in Fort George, told me that they were sexually assaulted every day for eight years by a nun,” Jean said.
Chrétien repeated during Sunday’s interview that he cared deeply about indigenous issues while in power. He pointed to the adoption by him and his wife Aline of an 18-month-old indigenous boy as proof of their devotion to the cause.
This Canadian Press report was first published on October 25, 2021.
– With files from Lina Dib in Ottawa