Politics

Lynn Beyak, the senator who defended residential schools, is resigning

Lynn Beyak, the controversial senator from northwestern Ontario with a long history of making inflammatory remarks about Indigenous peoples, is resigning from the Red Chamber.

Beyak was named to the Senate in 2013 by Stephen Harper

Sen. Lynn Beyak argued that residential schools did a lot of good for Indigenous children and posted derogatory letters about Indigenous people on her website. She announced her retirement on Monday, eight years after she was first appointed. (Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press)

Lynn Beyak, the controversial senator from northwestern Ontario with a long history of making inflammatory remarks about Indigenous peoples, is resigning from the Red Chamber.

Beyak, who was named to the Senate by then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013, is leaving just as other members of the upper house were preparing to consider a motion from Independent Sen. Mary Jane McCallum to permanently remove her from the upper house.

Beyak, 71, is leaving three years before her mandatory retirement date.

While Beyak has been suspended from the Senate twice — for questionable comments about the Indigenous residential school system and for posting racist letters on her taxpayer-funded website — an expulsion might have had financial consequences for her, since it would have allowed Parliament to curtail her lifetime pension.

Beyak keeps her pension

Having resigned, Beyak is entitled to her pension because she met the necessary contribution requirements.

"As per the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act, parliamentarians who have six or more years of pensionable service are entitled to receive a pension. Sen. Beyak will receive a pension upon retirement from the Senate," a spokesperson for the Senate's internal economy, budget and administration (CIBA) committee said in a statement.

"The act does not allow for a pension to be stripped in the case of a resignation."

When facing suspension last year, Beyak said she accepted that posting racist letters on her Senate website was "ill-considered" and she regretted the harm she caused by describing the residential school system in positive terms.

Senator walks back apology

But in announcing her retirement Monday, Beyak retreated from that apology, saying she stood by the initial remarks that prompted so much backlash.

"Some have criticized me for stating that the good, as well as the bad, of residential schools should be recognized. I stand by that statement. Others have criticized me for stating that the Truth and Reconciliation report was not as balanced as it should be. I stand by that statement as well," Beyak said in the press release.

"And finally, I have been criticized for offering concerned Canadians a space to comment critically about the Indian Act. My statements and the resulting posts were never meant to offend anyone, and I continue to believe that Indigenous issues are so important to all of us that a frank and honest conversation about them is vital."

In March 2017, CBC News first reported on a speech Beyak delivered in the Senate in which she praised "well-intentioned" instructors at Indigenous residential schools and chastised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for not "focusing on the good" coming out of these institutions.

Students at the residential school for girls in Spanish, Ontario. Many residential school students experienced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their guardians. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

Many Indigenous children suffered physical and sexual abuse at the schools. Thousands of residential school students died of disease and malnutrition.

Beyak subsequently grilled residential school survivors about their time at the schools during a Senate committee meeting, asking them if they endorsed her plan to audit all First Nations for financial irregularities.

"The speech that caused so much hurt and distress was actually a speech about taxes," Beyak said at the time.

In fact, little of her initial speech was devoted to the subject of taxes, which dwelled on what Beyak called the "good deeds" of residential school teachers who "didn't mean to hurt anybody."

In the months that followed, Beyak posted a series of letters to her website from supporters — some of which described Indigenous people as lazy, opportunistic, pampered and inept. She claimed she posted the letters to foster a discussion in Canada about the positive experiences of residential school students. She argued the letters were not racist but rather "edgy and opinionated."

She was kicked out of the Conservative caucus after she ignored requests from then-leader Andrew Scheer to remove the letters.

"Telling the truth is sometimes controversial but never racist. The Senate's reputation has been enriched by my stand, as clearly stated in thousands of letters from Canadians that I submitted to the Senate ethics officer," Beyak said in a May 2019 speech.

She was suspended and sent to anti-racism training — but she was asked to leave following her first lesson after instructors at the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres said Beyak claimed Indigenous ancestry because her family had adopted a First Nations child.

The trainer issued a detailed report card on Beyak's ill-fated session and said the senator "consistently referred" to her Métis status and her "Indigeneity" during discussions about the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The trainer's report also said Beyak made questionable comments about a First Nations man with "dirty hair" and a "grubby" appearance during her class work, and suggested her Indigenous trainer looked "white privileged."

Instructors said her "inflexibility and conduct made the learning environment unsafe."

Beyak was sent again to another anti-racism course and she successfully completed that program. She was then recommended for reinstatement by the Senate's ethics committee after completing the training and issuing an apology — but a motion was filed last month that could have resulted in her expulsion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

now