OPINION: Jean Chretien should apologize, but we should be skeptical

OP-ED BY Evan Loree

Evan Loree

I don’t understand why we court the apologies of old western chauvinists.

At 87-years-old, the former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, is quickly being outpaced by the march of progress. His record has painted an accurate picture of his views. They depict a man clinging to white exceptionalism and weighted with white man’s burden. I’m sure he cares about First Nations peoples. Cares, like the absentee father who has no time to parent his children because he’s too busy putting food on the table. So long as Chretien imagines himself as their caretaker, Indigenous activists should be unsurprised by his ignorance. After his most recent display of obliviousness, we should be skeptical of any apologies. 

Chretien spoke liberally about the history of residential schools in his appearance on Tout le monde en parle, October 24. While his display of ignorance should shock nobody it should appal everybody. This is a man who was head of Indigenous Affairs, formerly known as Indian Affairs for six years.

“This problem was never mentioned to me when I was minister,” said Chretien, referring to the sexual and physical abuse endemic to residential schools. If his ignorance is genuine, then he ought to be embarrassed. How does a man remain ignorant of his own ministry’s responsibilities for 6 years? The former Prime Minister must be quite good at holding his breath to have stuck his head in the sand for so long.

We, however, can be sure that Chretien did know something. Charlie Angus, an NDP member of parliament, brought forth evidence of Chretien’s complicity this week.

“People reached out to him and begged him to do the right thing, and he ignored them,” said Angus. The NDP critic brought forth a letter complaining about staff prejudice from a former teacher at St Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany Ontario. The letter, written directly to Chretien, received no response.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reports four other incidents of abuse from the same school during Chretien’s tenure as Minister of Indian Affairs. Similar reports from the NCTR show the ministry received multiple reports of sexual abuse at La Tuque residential school. Again, these reports were met with little to no action. Should we assume that Chretien just never read his mail? Or that he was never told about the incidents at St. Anne’s? I think this is an insult to the man’s intelligence. He must’ve known something.

Despite being a bad pen-pal at Indian Affairs, Chretien was invested in the issue. In 1969, prior to drafting an amendment to the Indian Act Chretien’s ministry consulted Indigenous representatives on the most concerning issues in their communities. However, when Chretien tabled what came to be known as the White Paper it ignored the very counsel he had sought. The bill proposed to abolish the Indian Act, strip Indigenous Canadians of special citizen status, dismantle the department of Indian Affairs and convert reserved land into private property.

Harold Cardinal, head of the Indian Association of Alberta at the time, called it “a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.” And therein lies the nut of Chretien’s view of Canadian First Nations. He appears to believe their best path to equality is through assimilation.

           This view is chauvinistic to the core and endemic to Canadian Indigenous policy. It is why Chretien’s ministry failed to consider the concerns of the communities they consulted prior to drafting the White Paper. The belief that white culture is superior has led generations of administrators, including Chretien, to believe that whites have a moral obligation to rescue the poor brown and black people from their own cultures. This is the crux of the white saviour complex and it is why Indigenous activists can do better than Chretien. He casts himself as the hero in this story, but the story has left him behind. For Chretien to muster up a sincere apology he would have to recast his role as hero and revaluate the paradigm of white saviour and suffering minority. Old white chauvinists do not change quickly and we should be very skeptical if he re-emerges claiming to have a brand-new outlook on life.