Jean Chrétien, St. Anne’s and the ‘straight highway’ to Attawapiskat’s suicide crisis - APTN NewsAPTN News

Jean Chrétien, St. Anne’s and the ‘straight highway’ to Attawapiskat’s suicide crisis


Jorge Barrera

APTN National News


In 1968, when Jean Chrétien was Indian Affairs minister, he received a hand-written letter raising concerns about the “prejudicial” treatment of First Nation children at St. Anne’s Indian residential school, an institution that would eventually become notorious for the magnitude of abuse inflicted on students there, including the use of a homemade electric chair.

Children from Attawapiskat, the Cree community along Ontario’s James Bay coast, which Chrétien suggested last week should consider relocation, attended St. Anne’s along with those from the neighbouring communities like Kashechewan and Fort Albany, where the school was located.

For years the federal government, including under Chrétien’s administration, along with the Catholic Church tried to suppress the breadth of the abuse at St. Anne’s, triggering court battles that continues to this day.

The legal battle over St. Anne’s has allowed the darkness of this past to shadow the present, contributing to a social environment that has produced an almost permanent suicide crisis throughout the First Nations in Ontario’s James Bay region, according to court documents filed as part of the ongoing case.

That crisis recently burst into the national consciousness through the state of emergency declared by Attawapiskat on April 9 after the community suffered through 11 suicide attempts in a 24-hour period.

Last Tuesday, on the day the House of Commons was set to debate the suicide crisis plaguing First Nations across the country, Chrétien suggested communities like Attawapiskat have to “move sometimes” because “isolation” makes it difficult “to have economic activities.”

Others see a different cause for the crisis, one that Chrétien helped perpetuate.

Jean Chrétien in 1969. Photo/National Archives Canada

Jean Chrétien in 1969. Photo/National Archives Canada

For those who lived through the torment at St. Anne’s there is no doubt about the link between what happened at that school, Ottawa’s and the Catholic Church’s efforts to suppress evidence of abuse there and the suicide crisis haunting Attawapiskat and the region.

“It’s a solid highway, a straight highway,” said Edmund Metatawabin, a St. Anne’s survivor, in a telephone interview this week from Fort Albany.

St. Anne’s originated as a Roman Catholic mission affiliated with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns of the Cross. It began to receive federal funding in 1906 and was originally located on Albany Island, near a Hudson’s Bay post. In 1932 it was moved to a site near the junction of the Albany and Yellow rivers. The school was hit by two fires. Ottawa took over the educational component of the school in 1965 and then purchased the building and the land, acquiring full responsibility, in 1970. The school closed due to low enrollment on June 30, 1976.

Throughout its existence, troubling reports of the treatment of students continually surfaced. There was the case of three boys who, after suffering physical abuse at the school, escaped in 1941 and then disappeared without a trace—they were presumed drowned. Reports also surfaced of the alleged harsh punishment of students who spoke Cree and links between the tuberculosis death of a girl and beatings.


The Letter

In 1968 Chrétien received a letter from a former teacher at St. Anne’s who quit over the way the Catholic administration treated students and teachers. The teacher’s name is redacted from the copy of the document obtained by APTN National News.

“It is my wish to make known the situation I found there in the hope that the department of Indian Affairs will step in and alter the situation tout de suite,” said the letter, dated Dec. 28, 1968. “The major complication we had centred around the attitude of the people at the mission towards the Indian people which I would have to say is prejudicial…We were constantly reminded of our superior position….”

Chrétien’s department would continue to receive complaints about St. Anne’s throughout his term as Indian Affairs minister, which ran from 1968 to 1974, according to records made public by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Chrétien also bragged last week about being the longest serving Indian affairs minister in Canada’s history.

In 1971 Chrétien’s department received information that a student claimed she had been kicked by staff. That same year, a federal government employee reported he had been told that a male teacher kept guns and live ammunition in the class to scare students. The same teacher was also accused of beating one student and kicking another.

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An investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police launched in the 1990s led to several criminal charges and convictions against former St. Anne’s staff, including for incidents that occurred while Chrétien was Indian Affairs minister, according to the record. Some of the convictions stemmed from charges of indecent assault and gross indecency committed by former St. Anne’s staff against male students between 1967 and 1975.

Metatawabin said he was aware of the 1968 letter to Chrétien. He said, as far as he knew, the former Indian affairs minister did nothing to delve into the concerns raised in the document.

He said Chrétien shouldered responsibility for the abuse suffered by the children in St. Anne’s.

“He had all kinds of responsibility to do something about it, but the government’s reaction is to hide everything and deny, deny, deny,” said Metatawabin. “That was his policy, to get rid of the Indians.”


Suppressing the evidence

It was also under Chrétien’s administration when federal lawyers, along with their Catholic counterparts, during negotiations with a group of survivors in 2000, began suppressing evidence that revealed the extent and violence of the abuse at St. Anne’s, according to the court record.

The groundwork that set the stage for the OPP investigation was laid during a conference which Metatawabin helped organize in 1992 and held at the old St. Anne’s school building in Fort Albany. At the Keykaywin Conference 19 men and 11 women shared their experience of abuse at St. Anne’s and their stories later became complaints to the OPP.

The conference also led to the creation of the Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association (PKKA), known in English as the St. Anne’s Residential School Survivors Association. In 2000, the association was invited to participate in a pilot alternative dispute resolution project with Ottawa, Ontario and the Catholic Church aimed at dealing with the allegations from survivors.

During those initial talks federal government and church lawyers denied many of the abuse allegations occurred, said Metatawabin, who was the negotiator for the association.

“We were butting heads with government all the time, they were saying no, no, no that didn’t happen. The electric chair? No, no, that wasn’t there and they don’t even have it,” said Metatawabin, who was tortured on the chair while a student at St. Anne’s.

The PKKA represented about 100 survivors at the negotiations, some who had been raped by staff at the school.

The Church and government lawyers would only agree to 30 “harmless incidents” for settlement, said Metatawabin.

“Throughout those negotiations, the federal government and Catholic Church were fully aware of the OPP investigation and the charges…and trials that had happened,” said Metatawabin, in an affidavit from 2013.

said Edmund Metatawabin, a St. Anne’s survivor. Photo/APTN File

Edmund Metatawabin, a St. Anne’s survivor, author and advocate. Photo/APTN File

The federal government, under the administration of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, would continue to suppress this information, this time under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) which was created as result of the multi-billion dollar settlement agreement between Ottawa, the churches and Indian residential school survivors.

Despite being in possession of the contents of the OPP’s investigation and subsequent trials as a result of a 2003 civil action in an Ontario court, neither federal lawyers nor lawyers from the Catholic Church ever disclosed this evidence during the subsequent IAP hearings. Federal government lawyers, during these hearings, provided “false” St. Anne’s school narratives that omitted the police-documented abuse, according to the court record.

The case of H-15019

St. Anne's Residential School. Photo/National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

St. Anne’s Residential School. Photo/National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

The record shows that federal government lawyers used these false narratives to defeat the claims of St. Anne’s survivors, including from one known only as H-15019 who has now gone to court in hopes of forcing a new IAP hearing.

Even after an Ontario Superior Court judge on Jan. 14, 2014, ordered Ottawa to turn over the OPP evidence it held within its files, federal lawyers continued to use the false school narratives in H-15019’s case.

“During final submissions for IAP claim…on July 25, 2014, (Justice Canada) relied upon the pre-2014…report and source documentation … and argued that the claimant’s story was improbable and not reliable,” according to a recent filing by Fay Brunning, the Ottawa-based lawyer representing H-15019.

Justice Canada had in its possession proof a priest, who was one of the subjects named in H-15019’s claim, was a “serial sexual abuser.”

The IAP adjudicator also failed H-15019 by not seeking the new documentation and dismissed the claim in September 2014. The St. Anne’s survivor was denied a review of the decision by the IAP’s Review Adjudicator in April 2015.

“The applicant received no compensation and was never sent for a psychiatric assessment for high levels of harm,” said Brunning’s most recent filing, which is a request for direction to the Ontario Superior Court to have the case re-heard. “The IAP claim of the applicant was dismissed in part because (Justice Canada) attacked the applicant’s credibility on the basis that his written application was inconsistent with the oral testimony.”

A second court ruling was issued in June 2015 ordering Ottawa to summarize and reverse redactions on the 12,000 document it had previously released as a result of the 2014 ruling.

A hearing on H-15019’s case is scheduled for May 11 in Toronto before Justice Paul Perell.


Health Canada’s state of denial

In an affidavit filed on February 24 as part of H-15019’s court action, Mushkegowuk Council deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday drew a line between the unresolved legal battle with St. Anne’s and the suicide crisis impacting all Mushkegowuk communities. Mushkegowuk Council member First Nations include Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, Moose Cree, Taykwa Tagamou, Chapleau and Missanabie.

Friday stated that a large majority of people over the age of 48 from the council’s member communities attended residential schools and many went to St. Anne’s.

She said there was “ongoing emotional impact” from the residential school hearings “on the mental health” of former students, “some of which were not believed at the hearings.”

She also stated that the “hiding of documents about abuse at St. Anne’s” by federal government lawyers was a “violation of the rights of the people who had been abused” and a “violation of the trust that our communities had put into the truth and reconciliation that was to come from the settlement agreement.”

The continued dredging of trauma, through the actions of federal government lawyers on the St. Anne’s file, has hindered the healing process of residential school survivors in the communities—the great-grandparents and grandparents in the region—leaving subsequent generations vulnerable to intergenerational trauma, she said.

“The young people in our communities need the strong and confident presence of their grandparents and great-grandparents. The grandparents and great-grandparents need to act like Elders and relearn the traditional teachings. To restore our communities and our place in Canada, we need to help restore self-respect in the Elders,” said Friday. “We are trying to stop the suicides, but also bring back pride in our Elders.”

St.Anne's quarterly return

St. Anne’s Indian residential school quarterly return from 1947 shows students attending from Attawapiskat. Image/National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

It hasn’t just been federal government lawyers that refused to acknowledge the depth of abuse suffered by students at St. Anne’s.

Health Canada bureaucrats managing the department’s settlement-mandated Indian residential school health support program have also been accused of the same, according to an affidavit by Joan Charlebois, a social worker from Timmins, Ont., who provided counseling under the program to Mushkegowuk communities.

“Health Canada has completely underestimated the need in our area,” said Charlebois, in an affidavit from 2013. “The bureaucrats in Ottawa do not want to acknowledge how badly children were abused, particularly at St. Anne’s…Health Canada is choking us with bureaucracy, in terms of trying to assist the survivors. They are impeding our ability to perform our jobs.”

Charlebois’ affidavit lists a litany failures by Health Canada bureaucrats on the file, including refusal to provide counseling coverage for second-generation residential school survivors—individuals raised by a parent or guardian who attended residential school.

“Several of my clients have been completely denied services that they were previously approved in the past,” said Charlebois, in the affidavit.

Health Canada bureaucrats were also reluctant to approve coverage for escorts travelling with elderly residential school survivors for appointments outside their communities.

“I have one client who is blind and his wife was always approved in the past to travel with him, but Health Canada has cut off her travel approval allegedly because the bureaucrat does not have a letter from the clinic,” said the affidavit. “There appears to be an underlying belief on the part of Health Canada that the clients are fraudulent in their needs.”

Friday’s affidavit also accused Health Canada of choosing pills over traditional healing as the preferred treatment for St. Anne’s survivors.

“Health Canada has been fighting us in providing proper funding of cultural support and healing,” said Friday. “Their approach is to medicate.”

It wasn’t until last year that Health Canada finally relented and began supporting traditional healing programs.

“We all coordinated our efforts to help Health Canada officials realize the urgency and breadth of the mental health needs that we were trying to address,” said Friday, in the affidavit. “After years of lobbying, Health Canada finally agreed to fund a traditional program for improved healing in our region.”


‘We are born into a war zone’

In a meditation about how years of war had devastated Lebanon, the country of his ancestors, former New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died in 2012, wrote in his memoir, House of Stone:

“This is a nation in recovery from losses that cannot be remembered or articulated, but which are everywhere—in the head, behind the eyes, in the tears and footsteps and words. After life is bent, torn, exploded, there are shattered pieces that do not heal for years, if at all. What is left are scars and something else—shame, I supposed, shame for letting it all continue. Glances at the past where solace in tradition and myth prevailed only brings more shame over what the present is.”

In many ways, this paragraph could have been written about places like Attawapiskat in light of the testimony heard in Ottawa last week by the Aboriginal affairs committee and the words of John Cutfeet, the chair of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority in Ontario.

“We are born into a war zone with Third World living conditions and wide-spread mental health issues from an unending cycle of intergenerational trauma,” said Cutfeet, in his testimony before the committee. “We see levels of (post-traumatic stress disorder) in our people that are consistent with what is seen in war zones and the war continues against our people to this very day.”

Chrétien did not respond to interview requests made through his long-time spokesperson Bruce Hartley as of this article’s posting.

Despite initial assurance to the contrary, Health Canada did not respond to request for comment as of this article’s posting.



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3 Responses to “Jean Chrétien, St. Anne’s and the ‘straight highway’ to Attawapiskat’s suicide crisis”

    Fmp Sportsguy April 21, 2016 at 5:08 am #

    As a generally Liberal supporter, this shocks me.. not because I doubt it is NOT true, but am disappointed by the fact such a high ranking Liberal seems to have been at the heart of abuse issue and had done nothing. I have railed against harper blatant abuse of aboriginal people, but facts are facts, and regardless, Mr Chretian needs to be held accountable. I urge Justin Trudeau to hold an inquiry, hold Mr Chretian to account for his actions, because at this point, I don’t give a shit about party loyalty, too many people have been hurt… if Justin is not willing to hold people to account, in another election I am sure a conservative government surely will!

      Jason Haney April 21, 2016 at 11:51 am #

      A conservative government will never hold anyone to account when it comes to the treelatment of our people. Neither will a Liberal government if history is any indication of what to expect. Every Prime Minister in Canada, including both Trudeau ‘s and every Conservative is culpable, guilty of perpetuating this genocide.

    papajaxn April 20, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

    Truth has many faces. Seems people in power have a deferential tendency to be believed before those with little or no power. We know the judicial institutions struggle to be just. Does “lady justice ‘s blindfold” cover her ears & nose so she can not hear or even smell the rats in the room??