WARNING: This story contains distressing details
While Jean Chrétien was minister of Indian affairs, his federal department received several reports — including one addressed directly to him — of mistreatment and physical abuse of children at residential schools, government records show.
Chrétien, Canada’s prime minister from 1993 to 2003, told a popular Radio-Canada talk show on Sunday that he never heard about abuse at residential schools while he was minister of what was then called the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968 to 1974.
A cursory look at the historical record reveals that while Chrétien was minister, his department received at least four reports outlining allegations of abuse and mistreatment of children at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, which operated in the Fort Albany First Nation, along Ontario’s James Bay coast.
The department also received reports of abuse from other residential schools during his tenure, including two from one that sat about 130 kilometres north of his hometown of Shawinigan, Que., records show.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing, when you get that old, you are still consumed in all those lies and there is no shame at all in what you’ve done to other people in the country,” said northern Ontario residential school survivor Mike Cachagee, a member of the Chapleau Cree First Nation who attended three schools.
“It’s sad. It just shows you that whole aspect of colonialism and how entrenched it is.”
During his appearance on Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle, Chrétien, 87, said none of his officials ever told him about abuse at residential schools.
“This problem was never mentioned when I was minister. Never,” he said.
Report that teacher kept weapons, ammunition
Yet Chrétien’s officials were fielding reports of abuse during his tenure at Indian Affairs at a time when the failure of the residential school system was widely and publicly discussed.
Under Chrétien’s tenure, the federal government began taking over direct operations of the institutions in 1969 from the churches that ran most of the schools in the system since its inception.
One letter, dated Dec. 28, 1968, was addressed to Chrétien and handwritten by a teacher who taught at Catholic-run St. Anne’s residential school.
The letter outlined concerns over how the institution was run.
“The main complaint we had centred around the attitude of the people at the mission toward the [Indigenous] people, which I would to say is prejudicial,” said the letter, obtained under the Access to Information Act by NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins—James Bay.
No record has yet surfaced of a reply.
Chrétien did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News.
“It is outrageous for Jean Chrétien to try to whitewash his role,” Angus said.
In 1971, federal officials received reports that a student claimed they had been “mistreated and discriminated against” by a teacher, and another student claimed they had been kicked by a staff member, according to an entry in the school narrative for the St. Anne’s institution, which is posted on the website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
School narratives outline the basic history of an institution and are primarily based on federal government records. The narratives, compiled by Ottawa, were a key document used in residential school compensation cases.
That same year, a federal government employee reported that another St. Anne’s teacher kept weapons and ammunition in class to scare students, according to the narrative. That same teacher faced allegations of beating one student and kicking another, the narrative said.
In 1973, a separate St, Anne’s staff member was “reprimanded for offering alcohol to a minor” staying at the school residence and convincing her to drink it, according to the narrative.
The next year, the school principal wrote the Indian agent in Moose Factory, Ont., that the parents and an unnamed First Nation band chief planned to press charges against another teacher at St. Anne’s for kicking a child in the face during a physical education class.
“We have tried to explain the situation to the parents and to the chief, but they refuse to recognize the fact that it was an accident,” the principal wrote in a Jan, 23, 1974 letter, obtained by CBC News.
Evelyn Korkmaz, a St. Anne’s residential school survivor who lives in Ottawa, said it hurt her to hear the former prime minister refuse any accountability for the pain caused by institutions he oversaw as a government minister.
“You should just fess up and say, ‘I screwed up, I’m sorry I’m human, I looked the other way. I look back in my past and I regret that I did,'” Korkmaz said.
Sexual abuse allegations against employee
At the Anglican-run La Tuque residential school, which sat just north of Chrétien’s hometown, the federal government launched an inquiry in 1971 into allegations that a former employee “mistreated children, including cutting students’ hair as punishment for disobedience,” according to the institution’s narrative, posted by the NCTR.
A year earlier, an employee was suspended and “discharged” from the institution after four former students went to local police in La Tuque, Que., with allegations they were sexually abused, according to the narrative, which cites several government records.
The narrative does not recount what happened with the complaints.
In 1973, federal officials received reports that a grandparent of two students attending Catholic-run Lebret residential school in Saskatchewan claimed that a supervisor “broke a girl’s arm and then laughed” and that two to three supervisors “were cruel towards pupils,” according to the narrative.
“That [Chrétien] didn’t know there were instances of abuse is unimaginable,” historian John Milloy said.
Milloy, a professor emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., published a book in 1999 on residential schools called A National Crime.
“It was no secret in the department, it wouldn’t be a secret in his office,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
Failure of residential schools publicly discussed
Milloy’s book states that the department regularly received reports of the mistreatment and abuse of children at residential schools throughout the history of the institutions.
By the time Chrétien took over as Indian affairs minister, the failure of the residential school system had been publicly discussed in studies and newspaper articles.
On March 28, 1967, the Edmonton Journal reported that the Alberta government had tabled a report in the legislature that included interviews with five teenage girls who attended Blue Quills residential school. The girls said they left the institution, accusing a priest of “making advances” toward them.
The report’s author, Morton Newman, wrote that “Indian Affairs officials corroborated the girls’ story,” the Journal reported.
That same year, the Canadian Welfare Council released a report by George Caldwell blasting the residential school system as a failure, and the federal department agreed, according to Milloy’s book.
Chrétien, in a 1968 letter, wrote that for Indigenous children, “remaining a member of the family unit can be more beneficial than the best residential school care,” according to the book.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419