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A mother's story

The natural mother of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's adopted son Michel says she doesn't like the recent publicity but she is ready to talk. Michel is now before the courts facing his second charge of sexual assault. As Janet Smellie discovers, the mother isn't the least bit surprised to learn of her son's current predicament.

Janet Smellie
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 07/02) - She sits on her couch, a heap of fresh laundry from the clothesline by her side. Her 18-month-old adopted daughter rolls on the carpet clutching her bottle of formula, stretching her feet in the air, her small frame rolling around the floor the way toddlers do.

NNSL Photo
Michel Chretien

"Did you see The Globe and Mail?" the woman's friend asks, "Today's issue includes an article from the prime minister's biographer. It mentions ...."

"No, I didn't have time yet to read it. But I will," the woman says, sighing heavily. "Jeez, it's all over the news, isn't it? I'm not surprised."

Michel Chretien's natural mother, who we will not name to protect her privacy, is 57-years-old now. She and her three children live in a small house in Yellowknife she rents through public housing.

She heard the news that her first-born son had been arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting an 18-year-old on the evening news of July 26, the day he was arrested.

"I'm not surprised because this is what I was expecting.

"I didn't want him around Yellowknife at all because I knew something like this might happen."

Back in time

Michel's mother was born in the small settlement of Fort McPherson in 1945.

She grew up at time when men trapped and hunted and women stayed home and had children. It was also a time when alcohol, particularly home brew, became as much a staple to the Tetlit Gwich'in as coffee or store-bought pop.

She remembers his birth like any mother would remember her first-born. She was single and living in Inuvik in her 20's when she became pregnant.

The Mackenzie Delta in the late 1960's was booming. The surge of oil and gas activity in the Beaufort Sea and the military presence in Inuvik created many jobs.

"I didn't love him (the father). I didn't even think he knew I was pregnant," she says. "He was going to school and when I found out I was pregnant I went back to Fort McPherson to be with my family."

Lack of support

Unfortunately, she says her family, and the community itself, wasn't set up with the support network that she needed and exists today.

"I came from a dysfunctional home, I guess." With 13 children, including herself, living in a small house, her father's drinking wasn't easy on his children, let alone one who was pregnant.

"My dad drank all his life. My mom didn't start until later," she says. It was her mother who brought home the bulk of the household income by doing odd jobs around the community.

Like many children in the Mackenzie Delta, Michel's natural mother received her schooling through the residential school system.

"I never had a bad experience there, or have anything bad to say about going to these schools."

By the time 1969 rolled around, pregnant with Michel, she worried about what to do.

"There was no support then for women who were alone and pregnant. And there seemed to be a lot who couldn't keep their children. There were a lot of kids put up for adoption. You also didn't know that alcohol wasn't good. The support, like today, wasn't there."

She says she didn't drink during the first five months of her pregnancy, but in the latter months did drink alcohol.

She describes herself at that time as "very unstable," and when she gave birth to a son in 1969, whom she would name Michael, she signed the papers that would leave the infant boy at the receiving home (orphanage) in Inuvik.

Soon after the birth, she was working as a nursing aide at the Inuvik hospital and she would sometimes be called upon to work at the orphanage.

"I remember they said, 'Your son is here' and asked if it would interfere with my work. I said, 'No', and I remember him coming over and taking him in my hands. I enjoyed working with the newborn babies."

She then started a relationship with a man who got a job at Arctic Red River and the couple moved there. Pregnant with her second child, Michael was just under two years old when they decided to cross the river to Inuvik to see if she could regain custody of him.

But she was two months too late.

"He was gone," she says sadly. "I was told he was adopted by white people and was somewhere down South. Everything was hush-hush. I only hoped he had been adopted by good people who would love and nurture him. I would often think and pray for him."

A search for her son

Some years later, when she had three more children of her own, she moved to Yellowknife. Here she not only found the support she needed for her own alcohol problems -- she's been sober since 1986 -- but she launched a search for her firstborn son.

"I wrote a letter to Social Services. Because I always thought of him and worried about him. I didn't know where he was and I thought he was out on the streets because a lot of adopted children do tend to run away from their homes. When I saw his picture in the paper, I knew that he was my son. The way he looked like his father and they said he was of Gwich'in ancestry."

That picture was from May 1990 when Michel Chretien was arrested for the brutal sexual assault of a Montreal woman.

It turns out, Michel, who was in his early 20's had also written a letter requesting to be reunited with his birth mother.

Reunited at last

With the help of Social Services, she was connected to the Chretiens, who arranged for a reunion.

"Aline, (Chretien's wife) avoided me. (Jean) Chretien said they'd had so many problems with him, not knowing what to do. I told them to let him go and he'd have to grow up on his own like we all did."

In 1992 his mother joined the Chretiens to sit though Michel's court process which saw him convicted of tying up and sodomizing a woman in his room at an apartment motel in Montreal.

He was sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary.

After serving two years in a maximum-security facility, he was transferred to Hay River's minimum security territorial prison.

It was when he was released from Hay River that he moved to Yellowknife to be with his mother and half brother and sisters.

"He stayed here. I think it was a condition of his release that he come here. I was facing so much stress. He was a loner and stayed in his room," she remembers of the three years Michel lived with her.

"He was ashamed of me, I think."

During those years, she says the Chretiens paid her $750 a month for his room and board.

"The first year he (Jean Chretien) would call often. He was concerned and he was trying to help him, too, at that time I think they needed a rest."

Out of control

But Michel's substance abuse became a major problem and she soon reached her breaking point.

"One of my friends saw me walking down the street and I wasn't myself. She (the friend) contacted Nellie Cournoyea. Nellie must have done something, called the prime minister because they got him out of here then and put him up in an apartment."

She said she didn't keep in touch with Michel after that, and later learned he had moved to Vancouver where, in 1997, he was convicted of his second assault. When she learned that he had returned to Yellowknife last April to live with Western Arctic Liberal MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew, she knew he had completed some treatment in Minnesota for substance abuse but still worried that he would get into trouble.

"Being an alcoholic is way different than being a sex offender. There's two different addictions, different problems."

Needs to help himself

She says the last time she saw her son was in June when he had moved out of Blondin-Andrew's house to his own apartment. She said he came to the house one night intoxicated and she had to call the police to have him removed from her home.

"He has to admit to himself that he has a problem. I've done that," she says.

"That's what I hope will happen. For his own good, maybe this might be a turning point. But if they continue to cover up and sweep it up, who knows who he will do it to next."

She said while she hasn't heard from the Chretiens since Michel's latest arrest, she believes Jean Chretien's public statement is genuine. "He (Jean Chretien) seems generally concerned. Michel is his son. I just borned him into the world. But he is a 33-year-old man. If the Chretiens had stopped giving him money, which they said they did, why come and get him a lawyer? He should have to go and apply for legal aid like the rest of us on low income."

"It's so sad. I don't know what happened to him that he became such a troubled man but for God's sake you know any sensible person would know there's something wrong and I've got to do something about this. "If they love this guy they should just let him go and let him find his way. Then it wouldn't be such a stress to them and then he would know he has a problem.

"Until I see a grown man that's well and honest, I don't want to talk to him. I want him to be treated fairly without the influence of the prime minister. It's his only hope."