Senator Lynn Beyak stands by residential school remarks, cites 'fake news'

Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak says she has received much support after she defended residential schools in the Senate last week, and is ignoring calls to apologize to survivors of the system who have branded her remarks insensitive and inaccurate.

Tory senator ignores calls for an apology, asks for an audit of money 'flowing in and out of reservations'

Senator Lynn Beyak says she has many Indigenous friends and those that read her comments about residential schools 'will recognize her knowledge, compassion and expertise' on the First Nations file.

Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak says she has received much support after she defended residential schools in the Senate last week, and is ignoring calls to apologize to survivors of the system who have branded her remarks insensitive and inaccurate.

In her first public remarks since CBC News reported her comments more than a week ago, Beyak said she has many Indigenous friends and those that read her speech "recognize her knowledge, compassion and expertise" on the First Nations file.

She also said they support her calls for an audit of all money "flowing in and out of reservations, and talks with grassroots indigenous people," she said.

"Which Indigenous people are your friends?" Independent Senator Patrick Brazeau said in an email sent to all Senate offices in response to Beyak's statement. "As a former national chief, this is important to me."

Beyak said she would not be resigning from the Senate nor would she give up her seat on the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee. The chair of the committee, Liberal Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck, had asked Beyak to consider resigning from the committee Thursday out of fear her comments could tarnish its work.

'I am concerned that Senator Beyak's comments may have tarnished the good reputation of the [committee] and that her opinions may negatively impact the future work,' says Liberal Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck. (CBC News)

"The senator has stated unequivocally, many times over the years, in noting certain positive aspects of residential schools, as also recorded in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, one can never excuse or minimize the suffering that victims have experienced," Beyak said in her statement, written in the third person.

The commission did find some Indigenous students spoke highly of the skills they acquired, the benefits of recreation and sports, and the friendships they made at a school, but for most students academic success was elusive in the crowded classrooms and they often left feeling isolated from their families, culture and language.

The commission, which conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the system, also found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant, and some 6,000 children died while in care because of malnourishment or disease.

"There were thoughtful phone calls and letters of support and respectful, dissenting viewpoints were also shared," Beyak's statement released Thursday said, adding that she has been involved "personally and politically" with First Nations people since 1964. (Beyak was born in 1949.)

'Fake news'

The senator said she did not intend for residential schools to be the focus of her March 7 speech, but instead wanted to shed light on problems associated with drinking water, inadequate housing and the over-representation of Indigenous people in prison.

However, she touched upon those topics only briefly, if at all, during her 20-minute address to the Senate, in which she spoke of the "well-intentioned" religious teachers who were overshadowed by negative reports documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

"I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part," she said during her initial address.

In a separate meeting of the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee last month, Beyak said, "I was disappointed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report in that it didn't focus on the good. The people I talk to are Christians." (A full transcript of her remarks can be read here.)

In responding to the criticism lobbed at her since those remarks were made public, Beyak invoked the term "fake news," an expression popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump, to denounce her critics.

"In this era of fake news and exaggeration, Senator Lynn Beyak is especially grateful to those who have taken the time to do their own research and to deeply and respectfully engage," her statement said.

She acknowledges the "honest and ethical journalists who wrote, and the intelligent well-informed citizens who are not intimidated by voices who seek to stifle debate."

Beyak's office has ignored multiple requests for an interview.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

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.