Senator Beyak can complain about free speech all she wants. Fact is, she earned her demotion

Beyak has a higher obligation than most to scrutinize her own words: her job is expressly to offer "sober second thought," not to change the discussion to be one about free speech.

Beyak is not being silenced. She is instead being made to endure something known as 'consequence'

Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak was removed from the Aboriginal peoples committee Wednesday weeks after defending the residential school system. (CBC News)

Senator Lynn Beyak, according to Senator Lynn Beyak, is being oppressed by the forces of censorship.

Beyak released a statement last week — after she was removed from the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee — in which she emerged as the helpless victim.

In the statement, Beyak blamed the scourge of political correctness for the furor over her earlier suggestion that we pay more attention to the positive aspects of ripping indigenous children out of their homes and putting them in state-run schools.

She defended her effort to foster a "truthful" discussion, highlighting many "inspiring stories spoken by Aboriginal people themselves," when in fact, she quoted only a single prominent Canadian playwright — Tomson Highway — and based her argument on the research of a man — Robert MacBain —  who's since disavowed her views.

The 'silent majority'

Nevertheless, Beyak claimed that those who were offended by her comments were of a "vocal minority," saying she actually enjoyed the support of a "silent majority."

That is impossible to prove, of course, though the evidence we do have suggests the exact opposite: a 2015 Angus Reid survey found 70 per cent of Canadians viewed the residential schools system as "cultural genocide."

But Beyak made her greatest affront to logic when she declared her political woes constituted a "serious threat to freedom of speech."  

Senator Beyak removed from Aboriginal peoples committee 0:31

That is, simply, a ludicrous claim. The senator's ability to speak and disseminate her views has in no way been restricted. Being demoted, even for politically expedient reasons, is not being jailed or silenced. What she has had to endure, rather, is something known as "consequence."

Yet for some, Beyak included, the very idea of facing repercussions for speech amounts to a kind of threat to democracy. It's a tactic used over and over to avoid the embarrassment of just desserts: in this case, a senator rightfully being removed from a position for which she's proven herself unfit.

Doubling down

Beyak could have easily quelled the controversy by unreservedly admitting that, yes, by and large, the residential system was a complete and utter horror. Instead, she's coupled her mea culpas with a doubling-down of her original comments.

And yet, it's surprising that she's surprised about how all of this has played out; there are few better ways to disqualify yourself from the Aboriginal Peoples committee than to suggest we're all being far too hard on the perpetrators of the residential school system. 

The purpose of the free speech complaint, in this case, seems to be for Beyak to sidestep responsibility for her views by demonizing the pushback.

The strategy of cloaking one's self in the language of free speech was likewise used by opponents of the recently passed anti-Islamophobia bill, M-103. Critics claimed their opposition to the bill was grounded in concerns over freedom of speech, even though such worries were baseless: the motion has not and cannot change speech laws in Canada.

The tactic there was apparently to distract from the fallibility of their own views on Islam. But freedom of speech protects your right to an opinion, not your right to an opinion left uncontested.

Beyak has a higher obligation than most to scrutinize her own words (CBC)

Beyak and others ignore, willfully or otherwise, that there is no inherent value in simply having a point of view. Not all ideas deserve to be treated with equal merit, and just because an opinion is deeply held doesn't mean it's irreproachable. We'd probably benefit, as a country, if more people abstained from holding opinions on that which they know little about.

Fretting over free speech infringements where there are none is common on Twitter and in the comment sections. But Beyak, from her powerful position in the senate, ought to show more sophistication. She has a higher obligation than most to scrutinize her own words: her job is expressly to offer "sober second thought," not to change the discussion to be one about free speech.

The true embarrassment for the senator aren't the criticisms or the damage to her career, it's her original statements. They were insulting to survivors, to Canadians, to everyone who has spent years unravelling the legacy of residential schools.

She can attempt to move the goalposts all she wants. But the fact remains: the senator earned her demotion.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Rosemary Westwood

Rosemary Westwood is a freelance journalist and opinion writer.