Politics

Lynn Beyak suspended from Senate after refusing to take down letters condemned as racist

Lynn Beyak has been suspended from the Senate for the remainder of this parliamentary session after declining to remove letters from her website that have been widely condemned as racist, and for refusing to apologize for posting them.

Unapologetic senator says she's being punished for exercising free speech

Senator Lynn Beyak addresses the Red Chamber May 9, 2019. (CBC)

Lynn Beyak has been suspended from the Senate for the remainder of this parliamentary session after declining to remove letters from her website that have been widely condemned as racist, and for refusing to apologize for posting them.

In a 15-minute speech to the Red Chamber Thursday, Beyak said she believes she is being unfairly punished by her Senate colleagues for practising free speech.

Beyak dismissed criticism of the letters as political correctness gone awry. She equated her punishment — a temporary suspension — to the totalitarian nightmare described by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984.

'Totalitarian'

"This type of penalty is totalitarian and alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada," Beyak said.

"Parliamentarians have not had their freedom of expression threatened like this since the events that led to the enactment of the Bill of Rights by the English Parliament on December 16, 1689."

For the duration of her suspension, Beyak will not receive her salary or have access to Senate staff and resources. The Senate plans to remove the offending letters from her official website.

Last month, the Senate ethics committee recommended that Beyak be suspended from the upper house for the remainder of the parliamentary session after the Ontario senator refused to take down the offending letters.

Suspended senator Lynn Beyak equates the sanction placed on her with the enactment of the Bill of Rights in 1689. 0:14

Beyak has said she believes the letters — some of which describe Indigenous people as lazy, opportunistic, pampered and inept — are not racist but rather "edgy and opinionated." She said they are part of a larger discussion she is trying to foster in Canada about the positive experiences of residential school students.

Today, Beyak insisted in her speech that, far from bringing the chamber into disrepute with her actions, she actually has improved the Senate's standing in eyes of Canadians by sparking a debate over the legacy of residential schools.

'My honesty and consistency'

"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," she said.

"Many of the letters spoke of the pride and respect for the Senate and for me because of the dignity, honour, integrity I bring to the Senate to my honesty and consistency."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde praised the Senate's decision to sanction Beyak.

"There is no room for racism or discrimination anywhere in Canada, especially at decision-making tables," he tweeted.

Liberal Saskatchewan Sen. Lillian Dyck, the chair of the Aboriginal peoples committee, today tabled a Senate report on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the horrors of the Indian residential school system. She said she was not surprised by the speech Beyak gave Thursday defending her actions and the letters, given her track record over the last two years on these issues.

"It's kind of a relief, actually ... There are two of us Indigenous senators that sit right across from her [in the chamber] and it was a little disturbing to every day have to face her, look at her, and think the kind of things that she posted on her website were, in my mind, terrible — and she couldn't see that," Dyck said.

Lynn Beyak says she believes she's being unfairly punished for practicing free speech. 0:32

"It was like being poked in the eye a little bit every day. And now that will be gone. It will be a lot easier."

Asked if she thinks Beyak can change, or if she will follow through on the Senate Ethics Officer's demand that she seek anti-racism counselling, Dyck wasn't hopeful.

"I've not seen any evidence of that. I don't anticipate that will happen. However, it's up to her," she said.

After a year-long probe, Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault found Beyak received more than 6,766 emails and letters from members of the public after CBC News first reported on a March 2017 speech in which she defended "well-intentioned" residential school teachers and chastised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because it "didn't focus on the good" in its study of the system.

Most of those emails and letters — 4,282 of them — criticized her speech, while 2,389 were described by Legault as supportive of the senator's positive sentiments about the residential school system.

One letter posted to Beyak's website says Indigenous people "should be very grateful" for residential schools. 

Other writers used derogatory language and stereotypes to describe Indigenous people and their history.

Beyak said nothing specific today about the letters posted to her page.

"My website has been lauded as one of the most positive and comprehensive and informative available," she said, without saying who praised her website.

She said her initial March 2017 speech and her subsequent posting of supportive letters was simply an attempt to ignite a debate in Canada about how to improve the living conditions of some First Nations peoples.

Beyak has called for the elimination of Indian status and a national referendum on federal spending on Indigenous communities.

"The problems of today, inadequate housing, boil-water advisories, fire, mould, disease, are a result of failed current government policies and have nothing to do with the past colonization by settlers or schools," she said.

Suspended senator Lynn Beyak on how she has made the Senate a better place. 0:27

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.

With files from the CBC's Chris Rands