It's sad to note that newly independent Senator Lynn Beyak is pretty much your typical Canadian. She comes off as well-intentioned and hard-working — the type of person you expect to see cheering in bleachers at small-town hockey rinks while holding a Tim Hortons coffee cup. I think of her when I think of the people Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to with his "old-stock Canadians" quip last election campaign.
But I say "sadly" of her typical-ness because Beyak, who Conservative leader Andrew Scheer removed from the Conservative caucus last week after she refused to take down offensive letters from her Senate website, is just like a great number of Canadians who are genuinely unable to see how their views are harmful. (For the record, in a statement Monday, Beyak said no one from Scheer's office spoke with her or her staff about taking down the letters.) Instead, these Canadians still seem to believe in that mythical free pass to which many white people — and I am a white settler myself — try to clutch: that of good intentions.
As long as we have good intentions, many of us believe, there is no need to apologize, and no need to grapple with the weight of ugly words such as "prejudice" and "racism."
But just because a view is typical doesn't make it right.
The Beyak saga might have only reached a breaking point now, but it has been brewing for many months, starting way back in March of last year, when Beyak said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings of systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada ignored the "well-intentioned" actions of instructors at residential schools.
"Mistakes were made at residential schools," she said at the time, "in many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools."
Many progressives, including Indigenous MP Romeo Saganash, called Beyak out for her comments and demanded her resignation. But other commentators saw it differently. Conrad Black, for example, writing in the National Post, argued that Beyak was correct, noting that "most" teachers in residential schools "were trying to prepare their charges for full participation in Canadian life." Some were racists, Black acknowledged, and bad things happened, but in his view residential schools were not "deliberate discrimination."
How could they be, after all, if the people involved had good intentions?
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Beyak was later removed from all Senate committees after making further remarks about First Nations peoples. But rather than consider her critics' arguments, Beyak recently doubled down and posted letters of support for her stance on residential schools on her publicly funded Senate website. Eventually, writer Robert Jago found the site and its letters, and wrote about it all for The Walrus. That led to renewed calls for action and, eventually, to Scheer throwing Beyak out of the party's caucus.
Some of the letters, which remain published, are awful (in one, a writer named "Joanne" says that through residential schools, Indigenous groups "keep inventing new ways to achieve a cash grab"); others are less cringe-worthy and some are even from Indigenous people. But many simply make the same tired argument that Beyak does: "I agree with you that residential schools were well intentioned and that many kids received an education through these schools," writes "Roger" in one of them. "While bad things happened as well and deserve the focus, you should not be condemned for your statements."
Beyak's son, Nick Beyak, who is a city councillor in Dryden, Ont., came to his mother's defence last week, too, by echoing her "good intentions" mantra.
"How can you say that nurses and priests were bad people and did no good at those schools?" he told the CBC. "How can a logical person say that and call a person who says that a racist? The connection is impossible." He added: "Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the majority of Canadians agree with the comments Sen. Beyak has said."
What the Beyaks and their many supporters seem to be missing is that consensus doesn't justify belief. After all, it was once consensus that the "right" thing to do was to rip Indigenous children away from their parents and try to comprehensively extinguish their culture.
The mythical free pass of "good intentions" once allowed non-Indigenous Canadians to casually harbour, encourage or even exert racism toward Indigenous people. Despite our era of reconciliation, many "old stock" Canadians wrongly cling to belief in the legitimacy of this pass.
But this is the incorrect approach. When a plane crashes, for example, we do not close investigations with a heartfelt summary of the pilot's doubtlessly tip-top intentions to land the plane. We look at what went wrong. And so, we must look honestly at what went wrong when it comes to residential schools. Here the "good intentions" line is not an argument; it's a distraction — a way for those uncomfortable with discussing racism to discuss racism.
In a way, it's understandable: what happened in these schools is so awful that, were we to fully absorb it, our belief in Canada might be shaken. Our belief in ourselves, as good people, might be as well.
So many "typical" Canadians seek comfort in the so-called honourable aspects of our history, and in the camaraderie of those who share our beliefs. But true reconciliation is not supposed to be comforting. It's supposed to be painful for all of us. Which is what Beyak's turfing finally announces: good intentions no longer matter. Your recognition of that does.