We’re stuck with Lynn Beyak. So let’s put her to good use.

Stephen Maher: Since Canada must keep paying the senator’s bills, we might as well use her as teaching tool to learn about history and a racist system

A picture of Senator Lynn Beyak accompanies other Senators official portraits on a display outside the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Thanks to Stephen Harper, who appointed her in 2013, taxpayers have no choice but to pay the bills of Senator Lynn Beyak until 2024, when she turns 75. Given that we must pick up her cheques, it seems to me we ought to make use of her.

Since there is no constitutional mechanism for forcing her to shovel snow, I propose that we use her as a teaching tool, a symbol of the racist system that caused so much suffering for Indigenous people.

She would be more useful in this way if she were more articulate, but she is no Conrad Black, so it is necessary to read her words carefully to understand her view of the world.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer awkwardly pushed Beyak out of the Conservative caucus last week after she refused to take down letters on her web site supporting a speech in which she praised the “remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales” of those who worked in residential schools, where 150,000 Indigenous children were mistreated over more than 100 years in this country.

In her speech, Beyak, a Christian, quoted Egerton Ryerson, who said in 1847 “that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings.”

Beyak reminds us why our ancestors built schools across Canada where parents were forced to send their children to be mistreated: evangelism. She seems to approve, delighting in “Christian Aboriginals filled with the same spirit of God and the love of Jesus that I and many others share.”

It is useful to remember that the churches were the engine of the residential school system. They wanted to convert Indigenous people and convinced the government to pay the bills, which it did, from 1883 to 1996.

READ MORE: Lynn Beyak and the real danger of racist fabulism

Indigenous people didn’t want to surrender their children to strangers, and they resisted, but over time, as communities were brought into a state of greater dependency, and the government was able to exert more control over them, the churches and bureaucrats used the power of the state—the police and the threat of starvation—to force the point.

The missionaries saw themselves as Christian soldiers, in the words of the hymn. They honestly believed that they were bringing salvation to savages.

Indigenous people had their own spiritual traditions that had to first be destroyed. The government and the churches discouraged potlaches and dances, ridiculed and undercut traditional spiritual practices. For example, in 1921, Duncan Campbell Scott, the official responsible for the system, sent a letter urging a crackdown: “It is observed with alarm that the holding of dances by the Indians on their reserves is on the increase, and that these practices tend to disorganize the efforts which the Department is putting forth to make them self-supporting.”

The churches and bureaucrats were able to do all this because the communities were under the control of the government in a way that is hard for us to now understand.

Indigenous people were prevented from leaving their reserves, which were not large enough to provide sustenance. When settler and Indigenous people clashed over access to resources—fishing grounds, or farm land—the government gave the settlers their way, ignoring the treaties when it suited them.

The treaties promised First Nations farming equipment and instruction, but it was often of poor quality, and Indigenous farmers could not sell their produce without the approval of Indian agents, who were sensitive to the concerns of white settlers who resented the competition.

The result was many deaths from disease and starvation, especially in the Prairies in late 19th century and early 20th century, after the collapse of the buffalo herds. The treaties promised survival rations, but the government of Sir John A Macdonald short-changed them, cut them off for political reasons and often provided them with rotten flour and bacon, likely in league with corrupt merchants. Indian agents used the threat of starvation to sexually exploit Indigenous women.

In 1879, Macdonald reported that “the Indians were reduced to such extremities that they eat mice, their dogs, and even their buffalo skins, and they greedily devoured meat raw given to them.”

Even so, in 1880, in the House of Commons, he said that he had instructed officials to hold food back “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Tuberculosis, once a rare disease on the Prairies, soon cut a terrible swath, on reserves and in the overcrowded schools. Officials blamed it on the inferior genetics of Indigenous people, a vicious, racist lie designed to hide their own culpability.

In the underfunded, shabby schools, thousands of children died of TB and other diseases caused by malnutrition and overcrowding. They were overworked, dressed in rags, forced to use dirty, unsanitary bathrooms. Some were shocked in electric chairs. Others were deliberately starved as part of nutrition experiments. Beatings were routine. Many were sexually abused. Some died in fires, from falling down unsafe staircases, from drowning.

Some children who ran away to escape mistreatment were forced to run for miles behind a wagon after they were captured. Runaways were kept in shackles. Parents were often not told when their children were ill or dead. At least 33 children ran away and never made it home, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The authorities knew very well what was going on. Campbell Scott wrote in 1913: “It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education, which they had received therein.”

READ  MORE: The other residential school runaways

Those who survived got a poor education. Most never advanced beyond a third-grade level, according to 1948 report.

Beyak thinks we don’t spend enough time talking about the “good deeds” at the schools, and complains about the money wasted on Indigenous people now.

Whatever insight Beyak may want to share on public administration reforms — which I doubt very much would be of the slightest value—she should save them for some time when she is not discussing residential schools.

Pierre Poilievre apologized in 2008, when he made similarly cruel comments about the expense of compensation on the day that Harper delivered his formal apology for what happened at the schools.

The only thing that can explain this kind of callousness is racism. If white Canadians had been subjected to the same kind of treatment, nobody would talk this way about their suffering. That same racism leads to a reluctance to honour the treaties. Beyak proposes that the government buy its way out of its treaty obligations by providing each Indigenous person with a one-time payout after which “we all become Canadians together.”

The terrible social problems in Indigenous communities are not the result of the treaties, they are the result of the Crown failing to honour them. Many First Nations that are doing well—like the Mi’kmaq in Membertou and the Cree in James Bay—are prospering because they have used the courts to force the government to live up to the treaties, and have gained control of resources to use as they see fit.

Beyak has had ample opportunity to learn this. She sat on the aboriginal affairs committee with Senator Murray Sinclair, who wrote the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She heard witnesses who went through the schools. Still, she persists in spreading her ignorant ideas.

This is willful blindness, a mental rigidity that is too common among those who do not want to recognize the wrongs our country has done.

Sinclair, who wrote the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on the testimony of more than 6,000 witnesses, explained the problem this way: “Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts. This lack of historical knowledge has serious consequences for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and for Canada as a whole. In government circles, it makes for poor public policy decisions. In the public realm, it reinforces racist attitudes and fuels civic distrust between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.”

I can’t figure out Beyak’s agenda. If she were serious about wanting to get to the bottom of corruption and misspending in First Nations, as she says, she could use her position in the Senate to ferret out wrongdoing, and I would applaud her, although often enough, the mischief is done by white villains, not Indigenous people.

She is not doing that, though. She is just bleating, seeking attention, keeping us stuck on a sterile debate about the cursed schools, giving credence to those who think Indigenous people are complaining unjustly.

Beyak swears the public is behind her, and likes to talk about the support she receives.

“As an Independent senator, I will continue to be a voice for freedom of speech,” she said after Scheer gave her the boot. “I consider it my duty and my role, as well as a great privilege, to speak on behalf of so many wise Canadians.”

If she really has faith in those “wise Canadians,” she should give up her Senate seat and go out and ask them to vote for her in the next election, and that would be the last we would ever hear of her.


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