WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Jean Chrétien, while he was minister of Indian affairs, said he knew of “problems” at a residential school in northern Ontario which has since emerged as one of the notorious institutions for the abuse of children, according to a letter provided to CBC News.
Chrétien has denied being aware of abuse in the residential school system when he headed the ministry.
Chrétien sent the Feb. 6, 1969, type-written letter in response to a hand-written one addressed to him by a former teacher who quit her post over conditions at St. Anne’s residential school, which sat along the James Bay coast in Fort Albany First Nation.
“I have looked into the situation and have obtained a full report on it from our regional superintendent of schools,” wrote Chrétien.
“You may rest assured, however, that we are aware of the problems which exist at that location and are doing what we can to correct them.”
The former teacher’s letter said that the members of Catholic orders who ran the school had a “prejudicial” attitude toward the Indigenous children who were taught in a “sterile, rigid and unloving” environment.
Chrétien, 87, told a popular Radio-Canada talk show on Sunday that he never heard about abuse at residential schools while he was minister of Indian affairs, a post he held from 1968 to 1974.
“This problem was never mentioned when I was minister. Never,” he said during his appearance on Tout le Monde en Parle.
CBC News sent Chrétien’s letter to a representative of the former prime minister, but did not receive a response.
The letter was one of at least four reports, as previously reported, that the department received while Chrétien was minister alleging mistreatment of children at St. Anne’s, according to federal government records.
One said a teacher kept weapons and ammunition in class to scare children and that the same teacher faced allegations of beating one student and kicking another. A separate report said one staffer had been “reprimanded for offering alcohol to a minor” staying at the school residence and convincing her to drink it.
Government records show Chrétien’s department received similar reports from other residential schools. A staff member also pleaded guilty of indecent assault for fondling girls at the Alert Bay residential school in B.C. in 1970.
Since then, through the testimony of survivors, the full scope of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse children suffered at St. Anne’s — which closed in 1976 — has surfaced. School staff there also used an electric chair on children as punishment and sport, a police investigation revealed.
An Ontario Provincial Police investigation into St. Anne’s unfolded during the 1990s while Chrétien was prime minister. Police investigators initially identified 74 suspects and charged seven people. Five were convicted of crimes committed at the residential school.
St. Anne’s survivor Edmund Metatawabin, who helped launch the police investigation, said, looking back, Chrétien, as minister, appeared to place little value on the needs of the children attending the institution.
“The students were not seen as worth the effort to go and visit,” said Metatawabin.
“That effort at the time was to keep things hidden, hoping that there would be no one to spill the beans or tell what really happened. It’s still an effort on his part to keep everything hidden.”
Metatawabin said Chrétien’s claim he knew nothing about the abuse has hurt many survivors.
“They are remembering and the triggers are plaguing everybody,” said Metatawabin, who provided CBC News with Chrétien’s letter.
Chrétien was minister when the Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government accelerated plans to wind down residential schools.
The government took direct control of the institutions from the churches in 1969 and began a push for integration by sending children into the provincial school system.
It was at this time that the department moved to place Indigenous children into the provincial foster care systems as another means to divert them from residential schools — ramping up what became known as the Sixties Scoop.
Chrétien adopted a Gwich’in child from an orphanage in Inuvik in 1971.
‘No help and no support’
In his letter, Chrétien wrote that he was aware that the former teacher and five others who had quit St. Anne’s had voiced their concerns in a meeting with a department official.
He wrote that the department was in process of taking over the school and that openings may come with a planned expansion of the school.
“If these are accomplished the teaching at Fort Albany should be more attractive to the teachers considering employment at that school,” wrote Chrétien.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who first made the former teacher’s letter public after receiving it through an access to information request, said Chrétien seemed more concerned with filling teaching spots than the children.
“These kids were left on their own with serial pedophiles and sadists and they had no help and no support,” said Angus, whose riding includes the site of the former school.
“Who was there to protect the children in this instance? The bishops and the Catholic Church walked away. Jean Chrétien walked away knowing there were serious problems facing these children.”
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