A Conservative senator faces immense backlash from opposition parties as well as her own for presenting what she believes is a “somewhat different side of the residential school story.”
During a Senate debate about the overrepresentation of indigenous women in Canada’s prisons, Senator Lynn Beyak decided to preach what she believes to be the virtues of residential schools.
Beyak argues an “abundance of good” came out of the residential school system, where thousands of Indigenous children were subject to physical and psychological abuse, the effects of which still persist today.
The system, in place from 1876 to 1996, took over 150,000 Indigenous children from their families to forcibly assimilate them into ‘Canadian culture’, destroying their languages, traditions and histories.
The Liberal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, said the senator’s comments were “ill-informed, offensive and simply wrong.” Romeo Saganash, the NDP’s indigenous affairs critic also took issue with Beyak’s comments, calling for her to resign.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the senator’s comments demonstrate a failure of education within Canada, contributing to “misinformed attitudes.”
“The senator’s comments point to the need for much more public education and greater understanding of our shared history,” said Bellegarde. “We expect more of our government’s representatives.”
Beyak mentioned the “kindly and well-intentioned men and women… whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports.”
“Obviously, the negative issues must be addressed, but it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good,” continued Beyak.
Independent Senator Murray Sinclair, who also served as chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was first to respond to Beyak. “I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven incorrect over the years, but, nonetheless, I accept that you have the right to hold them.”
The TRC was a commission organized in 2008 to investigate the truth behind Canada’s residential school system, and the more than 3,000 children who died under the program.
Beyak acknowledged the TRC, but simply referred to the children’s treatment as “horrible mistakes” that were overshadowing some of the “good things that also happened at those schools.”
The commission, meanwhile, found that what happened to the Indigenous peoples under the residential school system constituted “cultural genocide.”
This is not the first time the Conservative senator has spoken in defence of the residential school system. At a recent meeting between the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee she said those running the schools “didn’t mean to hurt anybody.”
“The fathers and sons and family members of the nuns and priests, to this day, have to bear the reputation as well, and nobody meant to hurt anybody.”
She continued, mentioning that one of the positives of the school system was that many Indigenous children were converted to Christianity.
“I was disappointed in the Truth and Reconciliation report in that it didn’t focus on the good. The people I talk to are Christians.”
Beyak is a former Progressive Conservative candidate who was appointed to the senate by Stephen Harper in 2013.