Conservative senators come to Lynn Beyak's defence while others say 'shame'

Conservative senators came to the defence of their colleague Lynn Beyak Tuesday, saying she has a right to free speech and should remain a member of the Red Chamber's Aboriginal Peoples committee

Chair of the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee says Beyak has 'made a fool of herself'

Senator Lynn Beyak, left, and senators Lillian Dyck, Scott Tannas and Don Plett spoke to reporters the day after Beyak said, 'There are shining examples from sea to sea of people who owe their lives to [residential] schools.'

Conservative senators came to the defence of their colleague Lynn Beyak Tuesday, saying she has the right to free speech and should remain a member of the Red Chamber's Aboriginal Peoples committee, despite her rosy views of the residential school system.

"Senator Beyak has exercised her right to free speech. We don't want a bunch of yes people on committees who are only going to agree with what everyone else is saying," Senator Don Plett, the Conservative whip, told reporters when asked if he will remove her from the committee.

As for the outrage expressed by some of her fellow senators and residential school survivors, Plett said, "Life will go on. The sun will rise tomorrow and set again tomorrow night and we'll continue. There is no next step."

Plett said the Senate's reputation hasn't been damaged by her comments. "This may or may not affect her reputation," he said.

She's really made a fool of herself in public.- Senator Lillian Dyck

Alberta Conservative Senator Scott Tannas said he doesn't think she should be removed from the committee, even if there are mounting calls to toss her.

"From my point of view, it's a matter that's finished and we'll move forward. She's entitled to her opinions, she's a senator, she represents folks in her region," he said. "I think better work gets done when people from a multitude of views are around."

Beyak was present at the committee's meeting Tuesday the day after she told CBC News she stands by her defence of residential schools. She said she doesn't "need any more education" about their horrors because she has lived in northwestern Ontario for 40 years, and that she "suffered" alongside residential school survivors.

Historian Jim Miller, who was a witness before the committee, said about Beyak's remarks that "education is extremely important. There's been a breakdown in the dissemination of knowledge that has been accumulated and circulated in the academy for 30 or 35 years now. As an academic I'd ask you to help us."

Independent Senator Kim Pate singled Beyak out at the meeting, suggesting Beyak's remarks could send a message that Canadian parliamentarians do not respect a new nation-to-nation approach with First Nations.

Beyak was accompanied by an aide who told the media she would not be making further comment. She sat quietly at the committee table while reporters peppered her with questions. "Everything I said yesterday is just as relevant today," she said.

'She's really made a fool of herself'

Despite the Conservative defence, Independent and Liberal members of the committee are losing patience with Beyak.

Saskatchewan Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck, who chairs the Aboriginal Peoples committee, said she received assurances from Beyak — after this controversy first emerged — that she wanted to learn more about the plight of residential school survivors. That commitment has gone out the window now, Dyck said, based on her most recent comments.

Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck said Beyak has 'made a fool of herself in public' for defending the residential school system. (CBC News)

"I really don't understand it. She doesn't seem to want to be educated. She says she already knows everything because she has Aboriginal friends that told her what it's like. Well, my goodness, I'm an Aboriginal, and I don't know all the history," she said ahead of the committee meeting.

"She's really made a fool of herself in public, and if you don't recognize that you've made a fool of yourself then there's really something lacking. Whether it's the ability to have empathy, to have sympathy, compassion, and the ability to look at things intellectually with her mind. I'm totally stunned."

'Shared shame'

Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran, who was recently appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said there are questions to be asked about Beyak's fitness to serve.

The Manitoba senator said members met privately this morning to discuss their options, including the possibility of drafting a letter to the Senate's selection committee, which has the ultimate say as to who sits on what committee.

I have real concerns about senators articulating a view of Canada in our 150th year that really appears to be 150 years old.- Senator Marilou McPhedran

"It's certainly sparking a great deal of reflection on the part of members of the Senate committee to ask what sort of qualifications we need among our individual senators, in order to move forward in building a nation-to-nation path to reconciliation," she said. "Senator Beyak's position does not support that vision."

She added there was "shared shame" over a member of the committee "engaging in discussions at this very limited level."

"As senators we have added responsibilities and, personally, I have real concerns about senators articulating a view of Canada in our 150th year that really appears to be 150 years old," McPhedran said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Julie Van Dusen