Chrétien insists he heard nothing about residential school abuse while minister

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Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools while he was Minister of Indian Affairs was never brought to his attention at the time.

“This problem was never mentioned to me when I was a minister,” Chrétien told the popular Quebec television talk show “Everyone talks about it” on Sunday night. “Never”.

Chrétien, who was Minister of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1974, said he knew there were residential schools and how difficult the experience was, drawing a comparison with his own time in conventional residential schools.

“I was a boarder, from six to 21 years old,” he said. “I had my share of baked beans and oatmeal. For sure, life in boarding school was difficult, extremely difficult.”

Chrétien’s comments drew immediate criticism.

The discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves at residential school sites across Canada over the summer reignited conversations around the discriminatory system designed to assimilate Indigenous children. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report documented the physical and sexual abuse and malnutrition suffered by children in schools.

At a press conference in Ottawa with residential school survivors, NDP MP Charlie Angus said he just doesn’t believe Chrétien.

“It’s outrageous for Jean Chrétien today to try to whitewash his role at the Sainte-Anne residential school, because he knew it,” Angus said, referring to a facility in Fort Albany, Ont. “People reached out to him and begged him to do the right thing, and he ignored them.”

Angus shared on Twitter a handwritten letter sent to Chrétien by a teacher in 1968, denouncing conditions at Sainte-Anne and referring to the school’s “sterile, rigid and loveless atmosphere”.

“Jean Chrétien never responded,” Angus said. “Imagine if he read this letter and thought, ‘I should do something.’ How many children could have been saved because some of the worst crimes were being committed back then? “

The 87-year-old former politician was invited to the show to talk about his new book, published in English under the title “My Stories, My Times Vol. 2”. He was asked about a passage in which he said he advised the Queen against apologizing to the Maori people of New Zealand for what was done to him by the British colonial administration.

Chrétien says he never heard of abuse at #ResidentialSchools when he was a minister. # JeanChrétien

“Your Majesty, if you are starting out, I will have to bring you to Canada and, since we have several hundred indigenous communities, you will be on your knees for at least two years,” he recalls telling the Queen in the book.

On Sunday, Chrétien defended his remarks by saying that an apology is good, but providing a future for indigenous peoples is better. “We cannot rewrite history,” Chrétien said.

“Terrible things have happened, not just in Canada. In the United States, it was the military that destroyed the indigenous peoples. Here, we sent missionaries, it was less dangerous. ”

National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations questioned the sincerity of Chrétien’s comments on Monday.

“Chretien says the Queen’s apology would keep her on her knees for two years, but he hasn’t heard anything about the institutes of assimilation and genocide?” she wrote on Twitter. “Let us remember that he promoted the 1969 White Paper on Assimilation and Genocide which launched First Nations activism.

Innu author Michel Jean, another guest on the talk show, criticized Chrétien’s comparison of residential schools to his own residential school experience.

“With all due respect, Mr. Chrétien didn’t realize exactly what a residential school was,” said Jean. “And he’s not alone. Jean explained that most people tend to mistakenly associate these institutions with schools, where you “teach people to write”.

While Chrétien said he had never heard of or suffered any abuse while in residential school, insinuating that he “must not be a pretty boy at that time,” Jean recalled completely different stories of his family.

“A member of my family who attended residential school in Fort George told me that he had been sexually assaulted every day for eight years by a nun,” said Jean.

Chrétien repeated throughout Sunday’s interview that he cared deeply about Indigenous issues while in office. He pointed to the adoption by him and his wife Aline of an 18-month-old native boy as proof of his dedication to the cause.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 25, 2021.

– With files from Lina Dib in Ottawa


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