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Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is one of the best examples of how the Liberal Party operates. He is thoroughly dishonest, his hypocrisy knows no bounds, and he has a penchant for rewriting history. These are the essentials of the Liberal Party’s program. 

While promoting the second volume of his autobiography, Chrétien claimed in two interviews this past Sunday (one on CTV’s Question Period and the other on Radio Canada’s Tout le monde en parle) that he had never heard anything about the abuse taking place at residential schools. He said this despite the fact that he was the minister of what was then called the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968 to 1974, precisely at a time when the abuses and the failure of the residential school system were being widely discussed publicly.

Chrétien was effectively the head of the Canadian residential school system while he was minister of Indian Affairs. When he was asked about the well-documented abuse at the “schools” while he headed the department, Chrétien replied that, “this problem was never mentioned when I was minister. Never.” 

Incredibly, Chrétien then went on to draw a comparison between his own experiences as a teenager at a boarding school with those of Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools. When he made this comparison, one of the other guests on the Tout le monde en parle talk show responded by saying “I think Mr. Chretien, with all respect, doesn’t realize exactly what an Indigenous residential school is.” This exchange really serves to expose the ignorance and the casual disregard and cruelty of the ruling class in relation to the residential schools and colonization in general, which Chrétien represents perfectly. 

When asked about Chrétien’s comments, one residential school survivor said that “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,” adding that, “It’s sad. It just shows you that whole aspect of colonialism and how entrenched it is.”

How could Chrétien make these claims with a straight face? One has to be a practiced liar to pull something like that off. But a little common sense would tell us that it would be impossible for Chrétien not to know about the abuse taking place in the residential schools. 

The entire residential school system was designed from top to bottom to abuse Indigenous people in an effort to “kill the Indian in the child.” How could such a thing be done without abuse? How could the ministers responsible for the system over the decades not know about the abuse when they were responsible for administering the abuse? Every single one of them either knew about the abuse and knowingly did nothing about it or hid the information, making them cruel liars and meaning they were complicit in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. If some of these ministers really didn’t know about the abuse, then they were stupid and incompetent. Whether liars or fools, these are really the only types of people who could run such a department and still sleep at night. 

That abuse was rampant at residential schools has been public knowledge for some time. Peter Bryce, the federal chief medical officer from 1904-1921, authored multiple reports for the Department of Indian Affairs detailing the horrible conditions at the schools and the alarming rates of disease and death. These reports were not made public by the federal government for obvious reasons. However, after retiring, Bryce published these reports in 1922 in a book entitled The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.

It could perhaps be argued that Chrétien didn’t necessarily know about these reports of abuse dating back decades prior to his being the minister of Indian Affairs. However, this still wouldn’t explain how he didn’t know about the abuse that was going on while he was head of the department. The failure of the system and the abuse was widely discussed publicly in reports and in the press precisely during Chrétien’s time in that position. Besides, it was during Chrétien’s tenure that the federal government began taking over direct operations of the residential schools from the various churches that had been running them since the time the system was created. The federal government took over precisely because of the failures and abuse in the system.

Historian John Milloy said “That [Chrétien] didn’t know there were instances of abuse is unimaginable,” adding that, “It was no secret in the department, it wouldn’t be a secret in his office.” Milloy published a book in 1999 on residential schools called A National Crime that shows the department regularly received reports of the abuse going on at the residential schools. 

In 1967 the Edmonton Journal published an article about a report in the legislature on sexual abuse at the Blue Quills residential school in Alberta. These abuses were corroborated by officials from the Indian Affairs department. Also in 1967, the Canadian Welfare Council released a report on the failure of the residential school system, which the department agreed with, according to Milloy’s book. While predating Chrétien’s time at the department, these reports show that the abuse was being discussed publicly at the time. It’s hard to believe that Chrétien wouldn’t know about it when he became minister.

In any case, a recent CBC article proved that Chrétien did in fact receive several reports of the abuse of children at residential schools during his tenure as minister. This article was not a piece of investigative journalism. In fact, it didn’t take much effort or time to show that the Department of Indian Affairs was receiving reports of abuse at the residential schools and that some of these reports were even addressed directly to Chrétien. The article says,

“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.”

Charlie Angus, NDP MP and critic for Indigenous youth, obtained a letter from December 1968 written by a teacher at St. Anne’s Residential School under the Freedom of Information Act. When responding to Chrétien’s lies he cited the letter written and addressed to Chrétien. The teacher wrote, “that crimes are being committed against children,” and urged Chrétien to do something about it. Naturally, Chrétien never responded.

In 1971, federal officials received several reports of further abuse at St. Anne’s residential school, which are available on the website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Also in 1971 the federal government launched an inquiry into abuse at La Tuque residential school, located just north of where Chrétien grew up. And in 1973, the department received reports of abuse at the Lebret residential school in Saskatchewan.

Chrétien made his comments when asked about a passage in his new book where he explains that he advised the Queen against apologizing to the Maori people of New Zealand for what was done to them by the British colonial administration.

Chrétien recalls telling the Queen, “Your Majesty, if you start [apologizing] 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.” But now, the abuses can no longer be ignored. Apologies for abuse were too much for Chrétien. Today, the Trudeau government makes one empty apology after another in the hopes that with enough apologies and enough time the whole issue will go away. The Liberals will keep this up at least until they decide whether to continue with court actions against Indigenous people.

Despite his lies and historical revisions, when defending his comments Chrétien said, “We cannot rewrite history. Terrible things have happened, not only in Canada. In the United States, it’s the army that destroyed the Indigenous Peoples. Here, we had missionaries that were sent, it was less dangerous.” It seems he just cannot stop himself from downplaying the abuse and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations exposed Chrétien’s lies and his own personal role in all this. “Chrétien says the Queen’s apology would keep her kneeling for two years, but he heard nothing about institutes of assimilation and genocide? Let’s remember that he promoted the 1969 White Paper on assimilation and genocide that launched First Nations activism.”

When asked if he would apologize for his role as a former minister responsible for the residential school system, Chrétien wouldn’t say. He said that he was “focused on the future” and said that “a lot has changed in the last 50 years”.

Indeed, a lot has changed in the past 50 years. The residential school system has been shut down, and there is much more awareness of the abuse and genocide of Indigenous people under Canadian colonialism and capitalism. 

Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. Instead of snatching up Indigenous children through the residential school system, the state now works through the foster care system. Indigenous peoples across the country are still struggling to defend their lands from corporations and the state. The problem of the water advisories in Indigenous communities still continues with no end in sight. 

It has been some 50 years since Chrétien was responsible for the residential school system. The last residential school was closed in 1997, almost 25 years ago. This is not long ago. The people responsible for this system of abuse and genocide are walking around and have suffered no consequences for their actions. This includes politicians in the various departments such as Chrétien, as well as members of the clergy and other “teachers” who abused children in the residential schools. Enough is enough. Empty apologies and symbolic gestures will not suffice. These people must be held accountable for their actions.

Chrétien’s comments are enraging, but they are also fuel. Fuel for our unity, fuel for the struggle. Let us never forget those missing and those killed, and let us fight like hell for the living. Now is the time to unite in struggle to bring an end to this whole rotten system.