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Former prime minister Jean Chrétien said the problems at the schools were not brought to his attention when he helmed what was then known as the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968 to 1974.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders and advocates criticized Jean Chrétien on Monday after the former prime minister said that, during his time as minister of Indian affairs, he was not aware of abuses that took place at residential schools.

Mr. Chrétien said on Sunday, while appearing on the Quebec television talk show Tout le monde en parle, that problems at the schools were not brought to his attention when he helmed what was then known as the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He served in the role from 1968 to 1974.

During the television appearance, which was tied to the release of Mr. Chrétien’s latest book, the 87-year-old also referenced his own experience in boarding school. “I was a boarding student, from age 6 to 21,” he said. “I had my share of baked beans and oatmeal. For sure, life in boarding school was difficult, extremely difficult.”

Innu author Michel Jean, who was another guest on the show, immediately criticized Mr. Chrétien’s comparison and said that the former prime minister did not understand the abuses Indigenous children experienced.

Indian residential schools were government-funded, church-run institutions. They were in operation for more than 120 years, and the last of them closed in 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent six years examining residential schools, documented thousands of student deaths, as well as physical and sexual abuse. The commission’s 2015 report also said the operation of residential schools could best be described as “cultural genocide.”

Over the summer, several First Nations announced that they had located unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, leading to increased public scrutiny of the institutions’ history and lasting impact.

Lynne Groulx, the chief executive of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said Mr. Chrétien’s words were hurtful and hard to believe. She said that what was happening at residential schools in the 1960s and 1970s would have been a matter of record inside his department.

“If by some chance he didn’t know, he ought to have known,” she said, adding that it saddened her to see a former prime minister say something contrary to the spirit of reconciliation. “It is really mind-boggling, to be honest.”

Cindy Woodhouse, the Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said Monday it should be very clear to every public figure today that the discourse on residential schools has advanced beyond denial or rationalization.

“We have some hard facts to face, but they must be faced,” Ms. Woodhouse said.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said there were close to 8,000 children attending 52 residential schools when Mr. Chrétien was minister. It is unthinkable that he would not have heard about students being abused, she added.

Ms. Blackstock also noted that Mr. Chrétien was prime minister when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released a report that included a detailed chapter on residential schools.

And, she said, he was prime minister when a national policy review documented shortfalls in funding for First Nations child welfare, and a record number of Indigenous children in care.

Even today, First Nations child welfare remains a fraught issue for the federal government. Ottawa must decide by Friday if it will appeal a Federal Court ruling that upholds two orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal related to discrimination against First Nations youth. If the orders are allowed to stand, the government could be liable for billions of dollars in payments to Indigenous children and their families.

NDP MP Charlie Angus pointed Monday to a letter written by a teacher at St. Anne’s Residential School in Ontario to Mr. Chrétien in 1968. Mr. Angus had obtained the correspondence through an Access to Information request. In the letter, the teacher asks Mr. Chrétien to take over the institution and protect its students.

Mr. Angus said he found the letter heartbreaking, because the educator believed the federal government would do the right thing and protect kids.

“They knew what was going on at the school and they did nothing about it,” Mr. Angus said. “Mr. Chrétien, that’s his legacy.”

With a report from the Canadian Press

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