Politics

Lynn Beyak fights to keep Senate website featuring letters described as 'racist'

Sen. Lynn Beyak is fighting back against efforts to take her Senate website offline, arguing such a move would have a muzzling effect and infringe upon her right to free expression.

'No matter what you say about it, most of those comments are racist': Sen. Murray Sinclair

Senator Lynn Beyak, in a still from a video on March 27, 2017. (CBC)

Sen. Lynn Beyak is fighting back against efforts to take her Senate website offline, arguing such a move would have a muzzling effect and infringe upon her right to free expression — and insisting the contentious letters published on the site are "not racist in any way."

Beyak, who has faced criticism for a year over her views on the Indian residential school system, has published letters of support on her Senate website, some of which have been called racist. Her former boss, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, ultimately booted her from the Tory caucus after she refused to remove the letters from her website.

The Senate ethics officer is now reviewing Beyak's conduct as some senators say they believe it violates the Red Chamber's ethics code — specifically, the part that requires her to "uphold the highest standards of dignity inherent to the position of Senator."

Academics from coast to coast and renowned journalists have read every letter on my site and stated that they are not racist or hateful in any way. They are compassionate and kind and seek a better way forward.- Sen. Lynn Beyak

Despite the ethics probe, some senators say they think the letters should be pulled from public view immediately.

Independent Ontario Sen. Kim Pate has a motion before the Red Chamber that would effectively force Senate administration to pull the plug on the website, which is housed on a server paid for by Canadian taxpayers.

Beyak — arguing that "political correctness" is preventing the dissemination of ideas — stood on a question of privilege, asking that Pate's motion be dismissed.

"A senator's website is to keep Canadians aware of current issues facing the Senate, keeping Canadians apprised of a senator's work, and to address the concerns and opinions of all Canadians," Beyak said in a speech to the chamber on Monday.

"If Sen. Pate's motion is allowed to proceed and my website is ordered to be removed, my ability to do my job as a senator of Canada will be seriously impeded.

"Sen. Pate has stated that this is not about freedom of speech, but in fact that is exactly what it is about. It is about trying to prevent me from expressing the view of many Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — not racism or hatred in any way, just a better way forward that includes all of us in Canada."

Beyak said the correspondence has been unfairly branded as discriminatory.

"Academics from coast to coast and renowned journalists have read every letter on my site and stated that they are not racist or hateful in any way," she said. "They are compassionate and kind and seek a better way forward."

'Most of those comments are racist in nature'

Pate said her motion would not restrict Beyak's freedom of expression, or do away with the website entirely. Beyak could pay out of pocket to host the website on a non-Senate server.

"Parliamentary privilege related to free speech does not extend to others making derogatory, racist or discriminatory statements on a website or elsewhere," Pate said.

"We cannot allow Senate resources to support messages that promote discriminatory attitudes or racist stereotypes."

Some of them are so offensive that it will instigate people to do and believe things against Indigenous people that we all have to be concerned about.- Sen. Murray Sinclair

Independent Manitoba Sen. Murray Sinclair said parliamentary privilege does not extend to a senator's website, noting that the letters in question were not even written by Beyak but rather by members of the public.

"No matter how you cut it, no matter what you say about it, most of those comments are racist in nature. Some of them, in fact, are borderline hate speech," said Sinclair, a former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

"Some of them are so offensive that it will instigate people to do and believe things against Indigenous people that we all have to be concerned about."

One letter posted on Beyak's website says Indigenous people "should be very grateful" for the residential school experience.

"Where would they be today if it were not for the residential school that were set up to help them? I expect they would still be living out in their isolated villages, un educated, a very high rate of child birth deaths, an very short life expectancy, and living in very damp cold dwellings," it reads.

A screenshot shows Sen. Lynn Beyak's personal Senate website. (lynnbeyak.sencanada.ca)

"I'm no anthropologist but it seems every opportunistic culture, subsistence hunter/gatherers, seeks to get what they can for no effort," reads another.

"There is always a clash between an industrial/ organized farming culture that values effort as opposed to a culture that will sit and wail until the government gives them stuff."

Scheer said promoting these comments was "unacceptable for a Conservative parliamentarian."

"To suggest that Indigenous Canadians are lazy compared to other Canadians, is simply racist," he said in a statement issued before removing Beyak from caucus. "Racism will not be tolerated in the Conservative caucus or Conservative Party of Canada."

Despite Scheer's expression of disgust, Beyak was supported by one former Conservative colleague, Quebec Sen. Ghislain Maltais, who said Monday other senators have no right to tell Beyak how she should conduct herself.

"We are free to think and to speak as we wish ... it is unacceptable in a Parliament and in a society governed by the rule of law to want to muzzle someone," he said.

Another Tory, Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos — a former Speaker — said that while he "completely disagrees with her view," citing former prime minister Stephen Harper's apology for the Indian residential school system, he still supports her right to post content on her Senate website.

"I do not believe it's incumbent upon me, or anybody here, to set the moral limit of what is right or not right in political discourse," he said.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.