Senator Lynn Beyak has undeservedly been branded as a racist, a propagator of hate and a stumbling block in building positive relations between the first peoples of Canada and those who came from distant lands.
Non-stop demands for her resignation have come from fellow senators, politicians at all levels of government and from the editorial boards of Canada’s leading newspapers.
Beyak was unceremoniously kicked off the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples last April after giving a speech in the Senate Chamber claiming that – despite the horrific abuse altogether too many Aboriginal children suffered – there was much that was good about the Indian residential school system.
She was banned from serving on any Senate committee in September and expelled from the Conservative Caucus on January 4 of this year.
On March 21, 2018, the Senate Ethics Officer announced that he had commenced an inquiry “into certain allegations [from several Senators] that Senator Lynn Beyak breached the [Ethics and Conflict of Interest] Code by posting certain materials on her Senate website.”
The Senate Ethics Officer said the decision to launch the inquiry was reached after a preliminary review initiated on January 18, 2018, in response to allegations that some of the letters contain racist and hateful comments.
The letters became an issue on January 3rd of this year when Global TV News falsely claimed that “the majority – which do not include full names of writers – contained what could be described as racist or anti-indigenous sentiments.”
The Global News report claimed to have reviewed all of the letters and found that there were “dozens containing language that First Nations advocates call racist or offensive.”
After booting Beyak from the Conservative Caucus the day after the Global News report was broadcast, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said: “Racism will not be tolerated in the Conservative Caucus or Conservative Party of Canada.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett charged that Beyak was using her position “to espouse her ill-informed and offensive views about Canadian history. Many of the letters she had posted on her Senate website supporting her positions have been interpreted as nothing short of racist …. Although Senator Beyak has been finally removed from the Conservative Caucus, it is more than disappointing that her appointment by the Conservatives allows her to continue to use Parliamentary resources to validate the views of those who refuse to accept the truth and propagate the misinformation and prejudice that continue to feed racism in our country [emphasis added].”
The Global report that triggered all these condemnations quoted from five letters written in March, 2017, in response to Beyak’s original, controversial speech. One of the letters says: “Do not back down, the Indians, First Nations or whatever they want to be called have milked this issue to their decided advantage.”
“The handouts have taken their people nowhere, and their constant backward-looking mentality serves no useful purpose,” another letter states.
“I’m no anthropolgist but it seems every opportunistic culture, subsistance hunter/gatherers seeks to get what they can for no effort,” states a third letter. “There is always a clash between an industrial/organized farming culture that values effort as opposed to a culture that will sit and wail until the government gives them stuff. Aboriginals seem to be well schooled in getting media pity and they have become very good at getting media coverage.”
The fourth letter quoted by Global News says: “To expect the Canadian government to continue to subsidize a culture which is often damaging to new generations of Indigenous youth, is just bizarre.”
The fifth letter criticizes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “running around doing selfies with minority groups”.
Although it’s questionable in the last one, the first four letters could, indeed, be considered racist and offensive.
However, if Beyak’s critics had taken the time to read all 104 letters in support of her March 7, 2017, statement in the Senate Chamber, they would have found that those quoted by Global News are the exception that proves the rule.
Many of the letters acknowledge – as did Beyak – that altogether too many Aboriginal children were abused in the schools. Consider these excerpts from several separate letters:
– “The sexual abuse and deliberate malnutrition are crimes for which the churches administering the schools surely need to answer.”
– “What happened to these children in many circumstances is unforgiveable and should never be forgotten.”
– “Shameful were cases of abuse at Residential schools.”
– “No one disputes that there was abuse in residential schools.”
– “There is no doubt the conditions were harsh and sometimes abusive and that most who attended suffered loss of heritage, culture and tradition.”
– “There was an unbelievable amount of wrong done.”
– “I recognize that there has been a history of abuse. No one supports this continuing, and we don’t deny it did happen.”
Some of the letters acknowledged the abuse while supporting Beyak’s call for fuller and fairer context:
– “Some students were horribly victimized. However, it is ridiculously simplistic and childish to hold that no good whatsoever arose from Indian residential schools.
– “She [Beyak] acknowledged that there were horrible things that happened in residential schools. She acknowledged that there needs to be awareness of the history of residential schools and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should look at the issues.”
One of Beyak’s correspondents was former Inuvik Dene Chief Cece Hodgson-McCauley, who thanked her for “opening up the much needed controversial debate on the positive side of the residential school experience.”
Hodgson-McCauley described the 10 years she spent at a residential school in Fort Providence, North West Territories, as “the best years of my life.”
She said she and her brother and sister were well taken care of and ate nourishing food. “We had an education, learning math, reading and writing.” Hodgson-McCauley went on to become the first female chief of one of the 23 bands in the Northwest Territories. She also wrote a popular weekly column for Northern News Service right up until one week before she died of cancer at the age of 95 on March 12, 2018.
Hodgson-McCauley, the recipient of a 2017 Indspire Award for her achievements and contributions in politics, reported that many former students were coming forward “with their good and positive side of their residential school experiences.” Elders had phoned her to express concern that only the negative side of the residential schools was being publicized. “They are planning to start a committee of elders to make public the positive side of the residential school. They all agree that Canadians must be made aware of the positive stories,” she wrote.
Indeed, a significant number of the letters sent to Beyak came from people with personal stories related to Indian residential schools:
– “As retired educators ourselves, with a combined experience of 26 years in Aboriginal and Metis schools, we witnessed first-hand the positive anecdotes and experiences of those who gained from their attendance at Residential Schools. Unfortunately, current orthodoxy forces their ‘voices’ to be silenced.”
– “As the brother of a nun who worked in the system, and the nephew of a Jesuit who worked there too, I categorically refuse to believe that all the people who worked in these schools were as evil as they are being portrayed to be. Indeed, they were seeking, under the social rules that were generally accepted at the time, to do good and to help these children.”
– “I worked with Chipewyan people as an employee of the Catholic Church from 1991 to 2001 …. I heard many positive comments by native people who had attended residential school in Fort Resolution…. One woman, a Chief of her community for some years, said, ‘I couldn’t wait to go back to residential school. You were clean and you had good food.’ I knew another family, eight children. The Dad was a trapper who spent the winter on the barren lands. His wife contracted TB and was placed in the isolation hospital in Ft. Res. The children were taken by the Dad each year to the school to keep them safe. It was very hard for the youngest who was only 4 yrs at the time – traumatic even to be separated from parents and older sibs. However, the child survived where otherwise he may not have. The schools must be viewed in the context of the social and economic circumstances at the time.”
– “My husband has worked and lived in several aboriginal communities in the north which greatly benefited from these schools and where the people speak very highly of the care and instruction they received. We are only given one side of the story.”
– “I spent over ten years living and working on reserves and northern settlements. And I remember, as a teacher, how often we had to convince the population to keep their children at home and go to the Day School, rather than to send them to a residential school. If the residential schools had been so bad why were parents insisting that their children go? I personally saw a lot of good emanate from these schools. I do admit mistakes were made but those same mistakes also existed in the population at large. Yes, most people were well intentioned and worked with the knowledge they thought best.”
– “I have lived and worked in Prince Albert, SK, for a number of years and had the opportunity to meet retired teachers of residential schools, and listen to their experiences as well. Those I met, were all good, hardworking and well intentioned people. I also had the opportunity to meet First Nations people, teachers and lawyers, who are now effective leaders and advocates among and on behalf of their people, exactly because they received education in those residential schools.”
– “I attended a First Nations Art Exhibition in Fort McMurray and I met a native artist who told me how grateful she was to the nuns and priests in her community who ran the school because for her it was a place of refuge. She said that her parents would go out on the trap-line and leave them to fend for themselves and she would go sit on the steps of the school and hope someone would help her.
-“I myself am a product of a Catholic convent school and while some people who attended that school with me will now say that the nuns were racists and treated them unfairly, that was not my experience. Yes, they were strict, but the principles of kindness and consideration for others were held in high esteem and they instilled in me values that successfully took me through more than 40 years in the business world.”
– “My mother has a cousin who attended a residential [school] and whenever she is asked about it she tells [her] that her experience was a good one, in fact she credits the residential school system with having provided her the opportunity to have a good education. Her experience in residential school was so good that when the federal government offered a blanket cash settlement to all former attendees, she refused to take it.”
– “I know from first-hand experience that the Residential schools provided a lot of good and back in the fifties it gave children from the reserves the opportunity to witness life off the reserve, to be educated in more than a one room school house for all, and to join in social programs to broaden their experience.
– “I think of the many people who provided clothing and funding to help ensure the children had a good experience at the Residential school while away from home. I am not naive enough to suggest that in some areas there were[n’t] some serious problems which should never have happened but you cannot tarnish the whole system with the same brush.”
– “Having worked for and with Aboriginal people in northwestern Ontario – many who are my friends – I support what you have said. Are there not two sides to this story? Why is only one side being expressed? Shame on our government.”
The overwhelming majority of the letters written between March 8 and May 1, 2017, and posted on Senator Beyak’s website were neither racist nor offensive.
It seems clear from media reports, claims made by Minister Bennett, comments by other Senators, and the words and actions of members of her own party including the leader, that very few of Beyak’s critics read all 104 letters.
Instead, they evidently read and repeated the excerpts from five letters highlighted by Global News, and based their subsequent comments and actions on them exclusively. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that many of the letters, like Beyak, acknowledge the abuses that occurred within the residential school system, but contend there is another, more positive side of the story.
In publishing the letters, Beyak has given voice to indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians with intimate knowledge of Indian residential schools whose testimony has previously been ignored or suppressed. Until their stories become part of the historical record, the whole truth will not be known, and reconciliation will not be achieved.