The calls continued last week for sanctions against Sen. Lynn Beyak in the wake of her ill-considered — and, by every reasonable measure, insensitive — comments about the positive aspects of Canada’s residential school system.
Ms. Beyak, a member of the upper chamber since being appointed by then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013, made headlines and drew the ire of almost everyone when, during a speech related to a report on the disproportionately high number of indigenous women in Canadian prisons, she lamented that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to “focus on the good” that was done in residential schools.
Despite the fact she was able to cite anecdotal evidence that a small percentage of indigenous people forced into the residential school system eventually reported positive educational outcomes, Ms. Beyak’s remarks in the red chamber revealed a deep lack of understanding. In the aftermath, there were calls for her to resign her Senate seat, rejections of her comments by fellow Conservatives as “ill-informed, offensive and simply wrong,” and comparisons made between Ms. Beyak’s praiseful talk of residential schools’ “good deeds” and the words of Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers.
Last week, the backlash continued with a call by the chairwoman of the Senate committee on aboriginal people for Ms. Beyak to reconsider her place on that committee and consider tendering her resignation. The concern, said Sen. Lillian Eva Dyck, is that Ms. Beyak’s comments may have tarnished the reputation of the committee and could hurt its relationship with indigenous peoples.
Here are some questions worth considering: exactly what, in the necessary march toward reconciliation, would Ms. Beyak’s removal achieve? Aren’t education and conversation and enlightenment the goals of the reconciliation process? And if the Senate — the so-called chamber of sober second thought — is not a place where contradictory views can be openly and vigorously debated, what is?
Ms. Beyak’s perspective is clearly uninformed, and the manner in which she expressed it could fairly be described as insensitive to the realities of what generations of indigenous peoples have endured as a result of Canada’s residential school policies. But the senator’s words seem more likely to have been motivated by ignorance than malice, which suggests a remedy based in education and understanding might be more productive than one focused on punishment and expulsion.
While others were calling for Ms. Beyak’s head, one senator — Murray Sinclair, the principal architect of the commission’s report and recommendations — reacted in a slightly different manner: “I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven to be incorrect over the years,” he said, “but nonetheless I accept that you have the right to hold them.”
It follows, logically, that the best way to change such a mind is to engage it and challenge its views. Rejection and exclusion are much more likely to result in division, entrenchment and resentment; one need only look to the current political plight of our neighbours to the south.
Exercising sober second thought requires being able to endure first thoughts — informed or otherwise — without overreacting. Perhaps a more charitable and productive approach is to view Ms. Beyak as something of a commission bellwether: if a mind such as hers can be changed by education, conversation and truth, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
» Winnipeg Free Press