Jean Chrétien says he never heard about abuse in residential schools while he was minister

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien said Sunday that during his tenure as minister of what was then Indian Affairs, he never heard anything about abuse happening in residential schools.

Chrétien also said in his experience at a conventional boarding school, he 'never had a problem'

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, now 87, appeared on the Radio-Canada talk show Tout le Monde en Parle on Sunday night. (Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien said Sunday that during his tenure as minister of what was then Indian Affairs, he never heard anything about abuse happening in residential schools. 

Chrétien made the comments during an appearance on the popular Radio-Canada talk show, Tout le Monde en Parle.

"This problem was never mentioned when I was minister. Never," said Chrétien, now 87, of his time in the department from 1968 to 1974.

During the French interview, Chrétien appeared to draw a comparison between his own experience attending a conventional college boarding school as a teenager to that of Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools.

"I ate baked beans and oatmeal. And to be sure, it was hard living in a boarding school, extremely hard. Here in Quebec, we had to [in order to get into university]," he said.

"In Shawinigan, we didn't have a college. We had to go to Trois-Rivières or to Joliette," he explained. "We had no choice. It was hard but my parents insisted I go to university and I had to do it."

Chrétien said while he didn't enjoy sleeping in a dorm with 200 others, he "never had a problem."

Stories of physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools were documented in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More recently, discoveries of unmarked graves on residential school sites have once again brought the issue to the forefront.

Innu author critical of former PM's comments

The former prime minister's comment drew the ire of another guest on the talk show, Innu author Michel Jean.

"Respectfully, I don't think Mr. Chrétien knows exactly what residential schools are," he said.

"The word boarding school makes people think it was a school where we teach people to write, but it wasn't that."

Innu author Michel Jean pushed back against the comments made by Jean Chrétien during the interview. (Radio-Canada)

He said that while Chrétien might recall eating poor-quality food, it doesn't compare to what children in residential schools were subjected to.

"My mother's cousin told me that when there was duck, the nuns would keep the duck meat and cut the feet off, with its toenails still on, boil that in water, and that's what they gave to the kids."

Jean described how members of his own family suffered abuse in residential schools.

"There is someone in my family who attended a residential school in Fort George who was sexually assaulted every day for eight years by a nun," said Jean.

"It was called a boarding school, but it was not a school."

'We can't rewrite history'

Chrétien, who appeared on the talk show to discuss his new book, said that he was aware of the existence of residential schools, but not what was going on there.

In Chrétien's autobiographical book, the former prime minister recounts an anecdote where he advised Queen Elizabeth not to apologize to the Maori people of New Zealand for the harm done to them by the British colonial administration.

Chrétien writes in the book that he told her: "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."

When asked about this, Chrétien said it's fine to apologize, but "we can't rewrite history. Terrible things happened."

Chrétien went on to defend his record, saying he tried to improve the lives of Indigenous people in Canada, both personally and politically.

"I even adopted an Indigenous son, to lead by example," he said. "This proves my investment in this issue."

The last of the residential school sites in Canada closed in 1997, while Chrétien was prime minister.

How to get help

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and for those triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Radio-Canada, Kate McKenna