Crown-Indigenous minister calls on Sen. Beyak to pull letters supporting assimilation of First Nations people

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is calling on Sen. Lynn Beyak to remove letters still on her website that support Indigenous assimilation and claim residential schools saved First Nations people from "squalor."

Sen. Marilou McPhedran says racist letters are still up on Sen. Lynn Beyak's website

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, says Sen. Lynn Beyak still needs to remove offensive letters from her official website. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is calling on Sen. Lynn Beyak to remove letters still on her website that support Indigenous assimilation and claim residential schools saved First Nations people from "squalor."

Beyak returned to her Senate role on Sept. 11 following a suspension imposed in May on a recommendation by the Senate ethics committee. She was suspended over her refusal to pull letters described as racist in a March report by Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault.

Legault concluded that Beyak breached the Red Chamber's ethics code by posting five racist letters on her taxpayer-funded website.

However, Beyak's website still contains letters that support the assimilation of First Nations people and praise Canada's former residential school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the residential school system, found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant in the facilities — and thousands of children died while in care of malnourishment or disease.

Bennett's office said in an emailed statement that the letters should be "removed swiftly" from the senator's website. 

"The denial, misinformation and prejudice propagated by the letters on Senator Beyak's website have no place in Parliament," said the statement.

"This was never about political correctness — it's about the serious hurt that was caused by the senator's words and actions."

Bennett also said that Beyak needs to apologize to residential school survivors.

Letter says assimilation decision 'correct'

Beyak has retained letters on her website that claim residential schools saved First Nations people from "hopelessness" and helped them "assimilate into the majority population."

Many of the letters praise her March 2017 Senate speech, in which she claimed residential schools were "well-intentioned" and criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's investigation into the history of the institutions. 

Sen. Lynn Beyak recently returned from her suspension from the Senate. (CBC)

"Certainly, the decision to assimilate first nations [sic] into Canada was and remains to be the correct one," said one letter.

"I believe the institution of Residential Schools was well intentioned and was an attempt to solve the 'Indian problem' by integrating the children into the new way of life," said another letter.

About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their parents by law and forced to attend residential schools over the century-long existence of the institutions.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 6,000 children died at the schools from disease, mishaps and abuse — but it may be impossible to determine the final number because many records were destroyed over the years. Many of the children who died at the schools were buried in graves that can no longer be found.

Residential schools, run by Ottawa and the churches, were meant to eradicate Indigenous cultures and fully assimilate Indigenous children.

Beyak's lawyer Donald Bayne said that the senator removed the five letters identified as racist by Legault.

"There is nothing on her website that was identified as racist by the Senate ethics officer. If it had been, she would have taken it down," Bayne told CBC News.

"You can try to pillory her for trying to comply with what she was ordered to do, but she has done exactly what they asked her to do."

If the Senate believes Beyak needs to do more, the issue should be taken up with Legault and the Senate ethics committee, said Bayne, adding his client would respond in a "co-operative fashion."

'It's not finished'

Sen. Marilou McPhedran, of the Independent Senate Group, said Legault may have taken too narrow a view in deciding which letters were racist and which were not.

"I think many of the letters that are still up on the website, to my calibration, definitely qualify as actively racist against Indigenous people and in particular against Indigenous people who were subjected to the residential school system," she said.

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran said some letters on Sen. Lynn Beyak's website are racist. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"I wish there was a way where we could quickly and efficiently remove the letters that are still damaging, that are still perpetuating racist stereotypes."

McPhedran said the issue needs to be taken up with Indigenous senators and others in the Red Chamber to decide possible next steps after the Senate returns on Dec. 5.

"To my mind, it's not finished," she said.

Sen. Kim Pate, an Independent senator, said some of the letters still on Beyak's site "perpetuate harmful and discriminatory stereotypes." Pate said it was "unacceptable" for Beyak to use a "privileged platform" for letters that so flagrantly counter the historical record.

"Posting such letters on a website bearing the Senate insignia and supported by Senate resources — and, by extension, taxpayer dollars — is not simply a question of one person or one senator's right to free speech," said Pate in an emailed statement.

"As senators, we have a duty to challenge such actions or we risk sending the message that what is happening is permissible. I do not believe that this is a remotely tenable stance of, or for, the Senate."

In a statement released Wednesday evening, Beyak said she had complied with "all five" of the ethics committee's conditions for her return.

"I respect the Senate of Canada, the role of all senators, the role and authority of the Senate ethics officer, and of the Standing Committee on Ethics and Conflict of Interest for Senators, completely and unequivocally, and always have," she said in the statement.

Beyak said she's never re-posted the offending letters and completed her suspension "in full."

She said she attended "educational programs, pre-approved by the Senate ethics officer" related to racism and Indigenous Peoples at her "own expense" and delivered a written apology to all senators to the clerk's office.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

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