Senator’s Residential Remarks Spark Backlash

Earlier this month during an upper chamber speech delivered by Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak, the topic of residential schooling in Canada was brought up. Historically, the subject is a stain on the Canadian flag, recalling the assimilation, abuse, and pain that Indigenous people of Canada experienced at the hands of the first European settlers. Naturally, this topic is associated with negativity, and conversations have focused on what Canada did wrong and how to fix it. At least, this was the case until Beyak’s speech on March 7th.

During her address, Beyak took the opportunity to claim the positive benefits of the residential school system, highlighting the lives it saved. In response to the public backlash she is receiving, Beyak stated “there are two sides to every story” suggesting the negativity of the schools overshadows the positives and for good reason. “The best way to heal is to move forward together. Not to blame, not to point fingers, not to live in the past,” said Beyak to the CBC.

While her remarks are disturbing on their own, the particularly troubling piece of information is that Beyak is currently a member of the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee – a position now being called into question. Following her statement, Saskatchewan Liberal Senator and chair of the committee, Lillian Dyck, suggested Beyak resign from her position. Furthermore, members of the committee have expressed their discomfort with Beyak handling Aboriginal issues given her remarks.

The damages of the residential school system have been a long-fought battle for the Indigenous people of Canada. Established in the 1880’s, residential schools were established as a means of assimilating Aboriginal youth into “Canadian” culture and society by forcibly removing them from their families and sending them away to boarding schools. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, these schools housed around 150,000 indigenous children over the course of almost 120-year. It was not until 1996 that the last federally funded school shut down.

Needless to say, its impact was immense. In a report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, thirty-two “intergenerational impacts” were identified as a result of the residential schooling system. As illustrated in this 2006 document, “intergenerational impacts” can be defined as trauma and abuse passed down multiple generations from family members who were forced to attend these schools. Such abuse and trauma include the following: sexual/physical abuse, substance abuse, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, chronic depression, spiritual confusion, cultural identity issues, and suicide.

The institutionalization of these schools was so severely damaging that in 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal public apology to Canada’s Indigenous people on behalf of the Canadian government. In an effort to give back to the Indigenous community affected by this schooling, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was created, establishing itself as the largest class action settlement in Canadian history as published in the Canadian Encyclopedia. Broken down to its bare basics, Indigenous people forced to attend these schools would be compensated an initial $10,000 CDN plus an additional $3,000 CDN for every following year they attended these schools.

While the intention of giving back to the Aboriginal community is good, it is hard to assign a dollar amount to the experiences of those forced to attend these schools. As it was pointed out in the report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, these scars run deep, and there is a long road ahead in healing wounds generated over a century of abuse. As a result, this topic remains a sensitive issue for Canadians, representing a darker, more neglectful side of Canadian history to be handled with care.

In light of the current situation, Beyak’s statements hit a sore spot for Indigenous people currently fighting for representation and action in a country they settled first. Naturally, the Senator’s comments sparked backlash from the Indigenous communities of Canada. As mentioned earlier, Beyak is a sitting member of the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee. In an article from the CBC, the committee’s chairwoman, Lillian Dyck, on top of requesting Beyak’s resignation, responded to the indecency by labeling Beyak a “fool” for what she has done. To make matters worse, Dyck mentions in her statement that, as it stands, she does not believe the members of the committee have the ability to remove Beyak from her position. It appears this is a decision only Beyak can make. Considering the public opinion against her, one would think it is clear she should resign. However, Beyak has made it public known that she has no intention of doing so.

Given this paradox, the next step for the Aboriginal community remains unclear. The committee has its work cut out in finding a way around Beyak’s refusal to resign; however, it does not stop there. While resignation would be appreciated, the statements earlier this month have bigger implications: that the true impact of residential schools is not understood. 21 years since its closure and 10 years since its settlement, the history of residential schools should be told exclusively from the Indigenous perspective. To publicly proclaim the benefits of a school system that merited a formal apology from the Canadian government and the largest settlement in Canadian history is a disservice to those who suffered and died because of it.

In fact, earlier this week Senator Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made an appearance on CBC Radio’s program The Current in response to this issue. In a powerful segment, Sinclair addressed problems that the Canadian Indigenous community continually faces, and suggested ways we can approach these situations.

“People tend to forget that there have always been those who are deniers of history and they deny history for their own reasons. They deny, perhaps, because they are slow-minded and dim-witted, but more importantly it is because they believe in a certain delusion about our history that they are unwilling to give up,” said Sinclair. “If we can preserve that record for future generations, then these deniers will have a diminishing population of people who will believe them.”

If this road of reparation and healing was not already long enough, issues like Beyak’s upper chamber speech this month make it all the more difficult. While we look at people who actually believe these radical statements and wonder how such a perspective can exist in this day and age, we should also acknowledge the community that holds these people accountable. As for Beyak and her position on the committee: only time will tell; however, considering the incredible public response, it is probable that wrong will be made right before all of this is over.

Wyatt Lang