A coalition of residential school survivors and their supporters wants senators to know the personal impact that Sen. Lynn Beyak’s public praise for the schools has had on their lives.
The group is sending a letter to every senator in Canada this week — in advance of their Sept. 22 debate on the senator’s discipline — asking them to extend Beyak’s suspension from the Senate.
“Ms. Beyak spilled a bucket of racist rhetoric in one of the most powerful institutions in this country,” says the letter, obtained by CBC News. “The sludge seeped out to communities, schools, hospitals, places of work and was especially felt by residential school survivors and their families.”
The senator from Dryden, Ont., was first suspended from the Senate in 2019. The move came after she declined to remove letters from her website that described First Nations people as lazy and inept and refused to apologize for posting them.
Beyak also publicly stated that residential schools were “well-intentioned”, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s conclusion that the residential school policy was cultural genocide.
Failed sensitivity training
She was ordered to complete education and training to improve her understanding and awareness of Indigenous issues before returning to her Senate seat, but that training has been mired in controversy.
After failing to complete a course designed by the Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, Beyak did a total of 24 hours of video-based training with the University of Manitoba in a course designed by then-dean of law Jonathan Black-Branch.
Black-Branch quietly left his post in June, but not before reporting to the Senate that Beyak is fit to resume her duties. Beyak also apologized in the Senate.
Senators must listen to survivors, not non-Indigenous experts, said Garnet Angeconeb, a survivor of Pelican Lake Indian Residential School and one of the authors of the letter.
“All of a sudden she’s a changed person? The sincerity questions come into play,” Angeconeb said. “There are some red flags and I’m sorry but I, as a survivor, do not readily accept her apology given what’s happened and who designed the last training program for her.”
Angeconeb said he personally has felt the sting of racism as a result of speaking out about Beyak.
The letter sent this week to senators quotes hate mail that was sent to Angeconeb after an interview with CBC’s As it Happens in 2018 about the racist letters on Beyak’s website.
“Get your shit together and stop whining and leaching [sic] off the system,” says the letter sent to Angeconeb from someone with the initials M.L.
“What is said in Parliament, in this case the Senate, reverberates in the community,” Angeconeb said. “In this case we certainly have heard negative stories, and we’ve experienced negative situations because of what was said about residential schools, because of what was said about Indigenous people.”
The letter to senators asks them to suspend their decision on reinstating Beyak until:
- Beyak has made a public apology in person, in northwestern Ontario, “and made concrete commitments to address the harm done and heal relations.”
- The Senate has answered questions about the appointment of Jonathan Black-Branch and the training course he designed for Beyak.
- Beyak provides further evidence of “her efforts to educate herself, especially at the regional level, with input from Indigenous people, particularly from survivors of the residential school system.”
‘A lot of damage’
Angeconeb said there is no easy path to having Beyak removed from the Senate permanently, but he hopes, with additional training, Beyak might see for herself that she’s undeserving of the role.
“If she’s sincere, then she needs to really deliver on what she says and really advocate for the people that she represents in the region and look at these issues from a different perspective,” he said.
“There’s a lot of damage that remains and I think the best thing for her to do is for her to sit back, and watch and get involved from outside the chamber and let somebody else do the job of promoting good relations.”
The Senate provided the website of an Ottawa lawyer as the contact for Lynn Beyak when CBC inquired about reaching her for comment. The lawyer did not respond to calls or emails from the CBC.