A few years ago, while promoting Lee Daniels’s The Butler, Oprah Winfrey spoke on the matter of generational racism in an interview with BBC Arts. “As long as people can be judged by the colour of their skin, the problem is not solved,” said Winfrey. “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it—in that prejudice and racism—and they just have to die.”
There are variations of Winfrey’s comment that form a strain of conventional wisdom where it comes to dyed-in-the-wool racism. It sounds something like this: when the generations of people steeped in the age of miscegenation laws and segregated lunch counters finally expire, their bigotry will disappear with them. Every so often there are shocking examples that betray the naïveté of this belief, and usually in the form of racial terror most often committed by young white men, aggrieved at a society they feel is leaving them behind. This is how racism is most often named and shamed—acts of overt bigotry and violence which would offend the sensibilities of most decent people.
This approach is useful when anti-violence is the goal. But it also leaves plenty of room for the type of white supremacist fabulism flaunted over the past year by Sen. Lynn Beyak. After Sen. Beyak spent the last year dredging up controversy with comments on residential schools and Indigenous assimilation, she was finally turfed from the Conservative caucus for refusing to take down anti-Indigenous letters from her Senate website. Enter her son, Dryden, Ont., city councillor Nick Beyak, all too eager to defend his mother’s honour and share the bright side of residential schools:
“Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the majority of Canadians agree with the comments Sen. Beyak has said…How can you say that nurses and priests were bad people and did no good at those schools? How can a logical person say that and call a person who says that a racist? The connection is impossible.”
Councillor Beyak calls his family’s views “quote-unquote politically incorrect,” which is a generous way of saying they’re publicly engaged in the busywork of white supremacy—passing distorted and racialized fictions down from generation to generation like a prized family heirloom. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports are freely available to anyone who cares enough to look, and the acts committed by residential school staff speak for themselves:
“The priest grabbed him, grabbed him by the hair, threw him down. Now, that was a cement floor where we played. And here he kicked him repeatedly. There was no stick. He had brand new boots, leather. I was sitting not too far away. I wasn’t very big. I still can’t forget to this day. It’s like I’m still watching him. It must have been ten minutes. These were brand new boots. On the thighs and the buttocks. He bounced his boots off him as he kicked him.”
Where the intent behind residential schools is concerned, one need look no farther than the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, prepared by Nicholas Davin for Sir John A. Macdonald:
“The Indian character, about which some persons fling such a mystery, is not difficult to understand. The Indian is sometimes spoken of as a child, but he is very far from being a child. The race is in its childhood. As far as the childhood analogy is applicable, what it suggests is a policy that shall look patiently for fruit, not after five or ten years, but after a generation or two…The Indian is a man with traditions of his own, which make civilization a puzzle of despair.”
As Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott put it in her brilliant essay for the Globe and Mail, “Canada has continually failed its treaty obligation to respect Indigenous nations’ right to steer our own canoes, instead choosing to high-jack them and pilot us towards destruction.” The extent of that hijacking includes every public conversation about Indigenous peoples to be had, especially where it comes to Canada’s sabotage of their communities, endangering of their health, and the ongoing effort to forcibly absorb them in to the body politic.
These matters have long since been settled in word, if not more recently affirmed by policy and the courts. The federal government settled accounts with survivors of the Sixties Scoop, for example, and has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. But here, the Beyaks show the machinery of white supremacy at work—by perpetuating its necessary delusions. By assigning virtue to the priests who physically tortured students with electric chairs, and to the nurses who prescribed ginger and bed rest to students who rapidly died of tuberculosis. By assuming residential schools were founded with the best of intentions, even when their founders wrote in the plainest of language their goal of erasing Indigenous cultures within two generations.
And by pretending their own family’s increasing volume of anti-Indigenous antagonism has nothing to do with the tragedy of the rivers, fish, and Grassy Narrows First Nations people being poisoned for decades by runoff from the Dryden Paper Mill, nothing to do with a reckoning being long overdue, and nothing to do with 2018 being an election year in Ontario.
The history of harm done to Indigenous people nearby their communities is the proper context to understand the Beyaks’ inability to move on. Nick Beyak believes that politically incorrect views being met with offence and insult is not how the country can be improved. Perhaps he’s right. Instead, views of the kind expressed by his family could be met with calls for Canada to honour its treaties, return the lands it stole, and for the province of Ontario to make amends with the people it pretended not to know were being poisoned for decades. Because there will be no death for prejudice and racism as long as its guardians have an interest in passing these delusions from one generation to another.