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Conservatives disavow Tory senator’s positive views of residential schools

A group of female students and a nun are seen at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in February, 1940

HANDOUT/REUTERS

A Conservative senator is facing widespread condemnation from politicians of all stripes, including her own, after she extolled what she said was the "abundance of good" to come out of Canada's former Indian residential schools, where widespread abuse has been documented.

Senator Lynn Beyak was roundly criticized in Parliament on Thursday, two days after she shocked other senators by defending those who had worked in the church-run schools and saying the residential-school experience had positive aspects for the Indigenous children.

Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, said Ms. Beyak was "ill-informed, offensive and simply wrong." Romeo Saganash, the NDP's indigenous affairs critic, called for Ms. Beyak's resignation. And the Conservatives said the senator's views were "disturbing and hurtful to the many survivors [of the church-run schools] who suffered the devastating effects."

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Ms. Beyak, a former provincial Progressive Conservative candidate from Northern Ontario who was appointed to the Senate in 2013 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, raised the topic of the residential schools in the Senate on Tuesday during a debate about the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canada's prisons.

"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 and are overshadowed by negative reports," Ms. Beyak said.

"Mistakes were made at residential schools – in many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools," she said.

Ms. Beyak did not return phone calls Thursday from The Globe and Mail.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools over the more than a century that they were in operation.

A seven-year inquiry by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was given the task of finding out what happened behind the walls of the institutions, concluded that the residential school system was a program of assimilation and "cultural genocide." In addition to widespread physical and sexual abuse, the commission report released in late 2015 said as many as 6,000 children died in the crowded schools, where disease was rampant and food was sometimes scarce.

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Since 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, has paid billions of dollars to those who were harmed.

Conservative talking points, obtained by The Globe, that were circulated by the party on Thursday to Tory politicians and staff pointed out that it was Mr. Harper who delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons in 2008 to former students, their families and communities for Canada's role in the operation of the residential schools.

The same memo said it was the Conservative government that created the TRC, as part of the settlement agreement, which recognized that the Indian residential-school system had a "lasting and damaging" impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.

Ms. Beyak, who sits on the Senate Aboriginal Affairs Committee and is a member of the Conservative caucus in Parliament, said during her remarks in the Senate on Tuesday that it is unfortunate that the negative aspects of the schools have been "magnified" and are considered more newsworthy "than the abundance of good."

There were excellent calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Ms. Beyak. "But, frankly, I did not see any new light shed on these issues."

As for the notion that the schools ripped aboriginal children from their parents, she cited numbers for the 1944-45 school year that were contained in the TRC report to show that "less than one in three school-aged aboriginal children ever stepped foot inside a residential school."

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Murray Sinclair who led the TRC and who is now an independent senator, was in the Senate chamber when Ms. Beyak gave her speech. Mr. Sinclair said he was "a bit shocked" that Ms. Beyak held views that had been proven incorrect but he said he accepted her right to hold them.

However, Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he was disappointed that "misinformed attitudes" such as those of Ms. Beyak still exist after all of the work done by the TRC.

"The senator's comments point to the need for much more public education and greater understanding of our shared history," Mr. Bellegarde said in a statement. "We expect more of our government's representatives."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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