A Conservative senator raised some eyebrows earlier this week after calling religious teachers of Canada’s residential school system “well-intentioned” during a debate about the over-representation of indigenous women in Canadian prisons.
Sen. Lynn Beyak delivered her remarks on Tuesday after the red chamber resumed discussion over a senate Liberal’s inquiry exploring the surging number of incarcerated indigenous women.
“Mistakes were made at residential schools — in many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools,” she said.
Sen. Lynn Beyak is facing backlash for remarks she made in praise of “good deeds” from Canada's residential school system. (Photo: Senate of Canada)
Hedging her speech as a “broad look” at timely indigenous issues facing the country, the Ontario senator called the work of some residential school officials “remarkable.” It’s these stories that “go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports,” she said.
Politicians criticized the Conservative senator’s comments.
Beyak’s remarks are unfortunate and misguided, said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on Thursday. An open letter by MP Dan Rusnak, chair of the indigenous Liberal caucus, asked Beyak to apologize for her “ignorant and harmful comments” about the residential school system.
NDP MP Romeo Saganash called on the senator to resign.
Beyak’s office told The Huffington Post Canada on Thursday the senator had nothing to add in regards to her speech when asked for comment.
In a 2015 report titled “The Survivors Speak,” some former students said they felt a sense of uplift in acquiring skills, participating in recreational and sporting-activities, and in making friendships.
Sen. Lynn Beyak, third from right, stands next to former prime minister Stephen Harper in this photo shared by Sen. Victor Oh. (Photo: Senator Victor Oh/Facebook)
The report was released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard from 6,000 witnesses across the country.
But for most students, the report describes how residential school stripped children of their language and culture as well as a chance to learn skills to embrace traditional economic opportunities. “Academic success was elusive” to most students, it concluded.
It’s estimated that approximately 150,000 indigenous students went through Canada’s residential schools — a system of institutionalized assimilation and child neglect that took children away from their homes.
Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.
Senator talks where ‘valuable dollars’ should be spent
Beyak, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013, also spoke at length about calls for the federal government to rename Langevin Block to one that doesn’t memorialize a father of Confederation who supported the residential school system.
The Prime Minister's Office is located in that building.
“Given the significant number of Aboriginals throughout Canada who had converted to Christianity and voluntarily placed their children in church-run residential schools decades before Confederation, it cannot be said that Sir Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the architects of the Indian residential school,” she said.
The calls to change the name from the building were raised by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and supported by aboriginal MPs.
Despite the discord in the debate topic, Beyak did acknowledge the work of the commission as “excellent.”
She eventually circled back to the original topic and said the focus on changing the name of Langevin Block is a “distraction from the important matters” raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It “will take valuable dollars away from more substantial indigenous needs, including the needs of incarcerated indigenous women,” she said.
Sen. Sinclair ‘shocked’
Despite accounting for four per cent of the overall population, aboriginal peoples make up of about 20 per cent of Canada’s prison population. And within that system, indigenous women are the fastest growing demographic.
According to Sen. Kim Pate, 37 per cent of women incarcerated in federal prisons are indigenous.
Following Beyak’s speech, Sen. Murray Sinclair thanked the Conservative senator for the “elucidation” of her view of Canada’s indigenous history before admitting he was “a bit shocked” by some of her comments.
Justice Murray Sinclair speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Ottawa on June 2, 2015. (Photo: Blair Gable/Reuters)
Sinclair chaired the TRC and presented its final report, containing 94 recommendations for “calls to action,” in 2015.
“I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven to be incorrect over the years, but, nonetheless, I accept that you have the right to hold them,” he said.
He added that Beyak failed to mention important facts related to the topic of Sen. Pate’s inquiry into the situation of the growing number of marginalized indigenous women in Canadian prisons:
I notice that you didn't actually speak to the issues that were raised in the inquiry by Senator Pate, and that is the issue of incarceration of indigenous women and, particularly, the presentation that Senator Pate made with regard to the connection between the over-incarceration of indigenous women in the prisons of our country; and the connection of those incarceration rates to the history of oppression and violation that has come about because of residential school experiences; and the connection to the history of abuse that has gone on in the schools; and, in particular, the sexual violations that have occurred for indigenous women in the area of 50 per cent of those who have identified having compensation claims under the independent assessment process. Do you have a view with regard to whether or not those facts that have been disclosed by both the TRC report and Senator Pate are accurate, or do you have anything you wish to say about that?
Asked by the Senate speaker if she wanted more time to answer Sinclair, Beyak said no.
“I can answer that later,” she said.
With a file from The Canadian Press