Responses to the article "The weaponization of history and Jean Chrétien"

The recent Policy Options article by Professor Patrice Dutil (Dec. 6, 2021) does a competent job of pointing out the importance of remaining vigilant when it comes to our reading of history.

Dutil writes, astutely: “Properly used, it [history] can be the essence of intelligence. But for history to flourish as more than a mere detailing of past events, it requires the irrigation of civil discourse and a certain measure of generosity between interlocutors.”

It is therefore ironic and deeply unfortunate that Dutil has come up dry when judging the honesty of Jean Chrétien and his memories about what and when he knew about the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools.

Chrétien insists that at no time when he was minister of Indian affairs from 1968-74, was he made aware of abuse in the schools. “On n’a jamais mentionné ce problème-là quand j’étais ministre. Jamais,” he told Guy A. Lepage, the host of Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle, on Oct. 24, 2021.

Chrétien’s assertion proved too much for Paul Robinson, who worked as the director of curriculum and program development for the schools of the Northwest Territories during the time Chrétien was minister of Indian affairs. Three days after Chrétien’s TMEP interview, Robinson published an opinion piece in which he accused the former minister of not telling the truth.

Why does Robinson know this? Because in 1970, Robinson was the civil servant who personally spoke to Chrétien about problems in the residential schools.

“On the occasion of the official opening of what was then the Chief Jimmy Bruneau school in Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), Mr. Chrétien and his wife were in attendance. I seized the opportunity to speak to the minister.”

Robinson writes that “at the age of 83, I cannot stomach the lies and disavowal of responsibility on the parts of the federal government and the Roman Catholic Church.”

“I witnessed the horror of what happened to the children of the Keewatin when they were brought to the residential school in Churchill, Man. Almost immediately upon the children’s arrival in Churchill, their clothing was removed, showers, delousing and haircuts quickly followed, and depending upon the grade, children were given colour-coded uniforms: blue, yellow, navy for the years 7-9. During the December recess period, the news of children attempting to walk away from Churchill back to their homes in the Keewatin region were duly reported in Yellowknife and forwarded to Mr. Chrétien in Ottawa. None of this information was ever acknowledged.”

Dutil mentions but quickly dismisses that on Feb. 6, 1969, Chrétien responded to a handwritten letter sent to him by a former teacher in St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany who had quit her job in disgust because she saw how some teachers held a “prejudicial” attitude toward the Indigenous children, who were taught in a “sterile, rigid and unloving” environment.

Chrétien promised that his department would do its best to take care of the situation. “You may rest assured, however,” he wrote to her, “that we are aware of the problems that exist at that location and are doing what we can to correct them.”

With this, Dutil’s defence of the former Liberal prime minister’s innocence hits a wall.

What is left to say? That the minister was kept in the dark by his loyal ministerial staff? That he was too busy taking care of the forest to see the trees – by which I mean the traumatized children and their families? These are arguments one has come to expect from a seasoned politician such as Chrétien. Historians must do their best to be immunized from the lobbying that politicians do to shape their legacies, but unfortunately the virus is powerful: Chrétien 1, Dutil 0.

In 1969, 24-year-old Cree activist Harold Cardinal published The Unjust Society, in which he took to task the federal government over its treatment of Indigenous peoples. It was a bestseller then. It is a classic now. No one who read that book or heard Cardinal – a media star who was certainly on Chrétien’s radar given their numerous meetings – could argue that they did not know there was widespread daily suffering on reserves and in residential schools.

Chrétien was just a decade older and Indian affairs minister in the Trudeau government, which promised to rework the relationship with First Nations people in Canada. Chrétien’s White Paper called for what amounted to assimilation. The Indian Association of Alberta, under the leadership of Cardinal, responded with what became known as the Red Paper, which laid out where the problems were and how the federal government could work toward solving them. The Red Paper pointed out that when it came to education, so many Indigenous students dropped out every year between grades 1 and 12, very few were left by grade 12. In one 12-year school cycle between 1951 and 1962, 94 per cent of Indigenous students had dropped out before their final year.

Chrétien would have us all believe that as the minister, he was never told why. Cardinal and Robinson’s face-to-face pleas with him that he take their observations seriously simply evaporated into thin air.

Dutil concludes his article by being rightfully skeptical of those who “actively work against intelligence in their never-ending and misplaced efforts to find easy scapegoats.”

He points to politicians, militants and journalists, who he says are guilty of souring “the goodwill to maintain a fruitful dialogue.” He neglects to mention historians. That is unfortunate, as clearly in this case Dutil has neglected, to borrow his words, “to fix the problems of the present.”

David Gutnick is a retired radio journalist, working for 36 years at the CBC, most recently as a documentary producer at The Sunday Edition. He lives in Montreal. January 6, 2022