Politics

Senate committee says Lynn Beyak should be suspended over racist letters

A Senate committee is recommending Sen. Lynn Beyak be suspended from the upper house for the rest of this parliamentary session after the Ontario senator refused to take down letters hosted on her website that have been widely condemned as racist.

Committee drops the boom after Beyak refused to remove letters describing Indigenous Canadians in racist terms

Senator Lynn Beyak in a still from a March 27, 2017 video. The Senate ethics committee is recommending Beyak be suspended from the chamber for the remainder of this parliamentary session. (CBC)

A Senate committee is recommending Sen. Lynn Beyak be suspended from the upper house for the rest of this parliamentary session after the Ontario senator refused to take down letters hosted on her website that have been widely condemned as racist.

In a report tabled Tuesday, the Senate ethics committee said an appropriate sanction against Beyak for ignoring the Senate ethics officer's demands would be an extended break from the chamber. The committee report said Beyak "would benefit from time away from the Senate to gain further perspective on the privilege of serving in Canada's Upper House and the obligations of senators in the course of such service."

"Your committee emphasizes the seriousness of this matter and its profound disappointment with Sen. Beyak's conduct, which reflects negatively on her, all senators, and the Senate as a whole," the report said.

"In making its recommendations, the committee considered at length the impact Senator Beyak's conduct has had on the Senate as an institution, on the public and on the public's perception of the Senate, as well as its effect on individual senators, including her."

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.

Beyond a suspension — which would include withholding Beyak's pay and all access to Senate resources — the committee also is recommending she complete "educational programs related to racism toward Indigenous peoples in Canada" at her own expense, apologize to the Senate in writing and remove from her website letters featuring racist content.

The Senate administration should be directed to remove five letters from her website if she won't remove them herself, the report adds.

If she does not swiftly comply with its proposed remedial measures, the committee suggests "it will be for the Senate in the future to consider options for further action."

Rather than recommending an outright expulsion — as it did with Don Meredith over the senator's inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl — the ethics committee is recommending a time-limited expulsion for Beyak. As it was with senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, who were suspended during the last Parliament amid allegations of impropriety with expense claims, Beyak would be free to sit to the upper house when Parliament returns after the next federal election.

The Senate as a whole must now vote on whether it should adopt the ethics committee's recommendations.

The report tabled by the committee, which is governed by Conservative Sen. Raynell Andreychuk and Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal, said it found Beyak's conduct "wanting in several ways" — her failure to recognize the overtly discriminatory language in the letters she published on a taxpayer-funded website, and her decision to blatantly ignore the Senate ethics officer's enforcement process by refusing to comply with his orders to remove the letters and apologize to avoid further penalties.

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

The report says the committee found its own interactions with the senator and her office particularly trying, since Beyak only responded to their requests for comment after "repeated follow-ups by the committee clerk."

"For these reasons, your committee is recommending that Senator Beyak be suspended from the Senate until the end of the current Parliament with certain conditions," the committee report reads.

Independent Manitoba Sen. Murray Sinclair, a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a member of the committee that recommended Beyak's suspension, said Tuesday the committee put forward a series of "reasonable" recommendations for the upper house to consider.

"I think most senators are reasonable. I think for the good of the Senate and the reputation of this institution ... we need to look carefully at what the committee's recommended and go forward with that," Sinclair said.

At least one senator said suspension alone might be not be sufficient as a sanction. In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, Independent Quebec Sen. Pierre Dalphond said Beyak should consider resigning from the place altogether.

"I think the time has come for that," he said in an interview with Vassy Kapelos. "I think she has done something which is a dishonour for the Senate. I'm glad to see she's suspended until the end of this Parliament and I think that she should seriously consider ... it's time to do the honourable thing and maybe move on.

"She should, as a senator, ask herself some fundamental questions. 'What is my contribution to the Senate? And what will be my contribution in the future?' And maybe the honourable thing is to move on."

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett launched a social media campaign of sorts after the ethics officer released his report on the matter last month — tweeting daily that Beyak should remove the hateful letters.

"I'd like to commend the Senate on their strong recommendations. I think it's really important. Finally, those racist letters will come down," Bennett said today.

"I think she should be suspended until the end of the session. She needs to take training on the issues around cultural safety and Indigenous awareness at her own expense."

After his 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 TRC 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 on 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.

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.