Former PM Chretien called out over comments on residential schools
OTTAWA -- Warning: Details in this story may be disturbing for some.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien is being called out over his recent comments on residential schools, after stating he was not aware of any abuses happening in these institutions while he was minister of then-Indian affairs.
In two interviews promoting his new book that aired on Sunday, one on CTV’s Question Period, and one on popular French-language talk show Tout le monde en parle on Radio Canada, Chretien was asked about his role in Canada’s residential school legacy.
Chretien was the minister of Indian affairs between 1968 to 1974 under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He went on to become prime minister and saw the last operational residential school closed while he was in office.
In the CTV interview, Chretien was asked whether he takes some responsibility in light of the continued discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.
“They [residential schools] were there since a long time… We had to manage the problem at that time,” he said. “We were not informed of any abuse at that time.”
Asked if he would apologize for his role in Canada’s residential school legacy, Chretien wouldn’t say. He said that he was focused on the future and noted a lot has changed in the last 50 years.
He spoke about the importance of education, stating that the rate of Indigenous people graduating from university has grown exponentially from when he became minister to present day.
“Education is the key, and in those days… That was the system they had,” he said.
In the Radio Canada interview, Chretien said: “No one ever mentioned this problem when I was minister. Never.”
Responding to these assertions on Monday morning, NDP MP and critic for Indigenous youth Charlie Angus cited a hand-written letter he’d read from a teacher to then-minister Chretien that was from St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. It was dated 1968, he said.
In it, the teacher told him “that crimes are being committed against children, that he as Indian affairs minister had to step up and do something. And Jean Chretien never responded," Angus said.
“Imagine if he 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 that time. So it is outrageous for Jean Chretien today, to try and whitewash his role…because he knew people reached out to him and they begged him to do the right thing. And he ignored them,” Angus said.
In the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, numerous accounts of abuse were documented as regular occurrences within these institutions.
“The Commission heard from more than 6,000 witnesses, most of whom survived the experience of living in the schools as students…Children were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world,” reads the preface of the summary of the final report.
Responding to Chretien’s remarks in an interview on CTV New Channel’s Power Play on Monday, University of Manitoba associate professor Niigaan Sinclair said that in considering Chretien’s political career and involvement in Indigenous issues, Chretien seemed to “play a little bit of a revisionist.”
“A lot of this reminds me of trying to deal with people who are in a deep state of denialism when it comes to, not just the issue of residential school, but the issue of: how did we get here in the first place?” he said.
In both interviews, Chretien also appeared to be comparing his personal experiences to those of Indigenous people.
In the Radio Canada interview, Chretien appeared to draw parallels between the experiences of Indigenous children at residential schools, and those of young people like himself who attended boarding schools, saying “life was difficult” at all of them.
“I was a boarding school student from age six to age 21,” Chretien said. “I ate baked beans and oatmeal,” he said. “It was difficult, the life of a boarding school student, very difficult.”
Michel Jean, an Innu author and TVA anchor from Mashteuiatsh, near Lac-St-Jean responded to Chretien’s remarks during a separate segment on Sunday’s Toute le monde en parle.
“I think Mr. Chretien, with all respect, doesn’t realize exactly what an Indigenous residential school is,” he said.
“It was called a residential school, but it wasn't a school,” said Jean, adding that eating certain foods does not compare to the experiences of First Nations children.
During his tenure as minister, Chretien proposed a highly controversial and ultimately withdrawn ‘white paper’ that was viewed by Indigenous people as assimilationist as it proposed among other things to eliminate “Indian status.” He said he backed away from this proposal after hearing the concerns from Indigenous groups, though he seemed to downplay the concerns over assimilation raised in regards to his white paper proposal.
“Am I assimilated? I'm French. I’m in Ottawa, I think I'm still French. So what is assimilation? Life changes. You know, it's not the same life that they were living in those days. Everybody adjusts to the new reality,” Chretien said to CTV.
In a tweet responding to Chretien’s remarks, AFN National Chief RoseAnn Archibald said: “Let’s remember that he promoted the ‘1969 White Paper’ on assimilation/genocide that launched #FirstNations activism.”
“The fact is that Indigenous peoples are not like everybody else in the country, and so therefore have special and unique relationships via the treaties, via our relationship and historical relationships with the Crown,” said Sinclair.
“It’s almost as if Jean Chretien wasn't listening during those years and then later when becoming prime minister, institutes the same old problematic, deeply—at times—offensive… creates more problems than it's worth, government, which then we see today and here we are in 2021 left to clean up that situation.”
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.
With files from CTV News’ Marianne Drouin and CTV Montreal’s Selena Ross