Conservative Senate leader examining Beyak's residential schools comments

Some are calling for Lynn Beyak to step down from a committee looking into the Crown's relationship with Canada's Indigenous Peoples

OTTAWA – The newly minted leader of the Conservatives in the Senate says he intends to take a second look at Sen. Lynn Beyak to see what, if any, actions the Tories should take over her comments on residential schools.

Beyak doubled down this week on her comments that there was “good” done in residential schools, insisting that she had no need for additional education about residential schools or indigenous culture, citing a long-standing friendship with an “aboriginal fellow” and her experiences in northern Ontario.

Beyak refused to elaborate Tuesday on the comments in a CBC interview where she described an outpouring of public support for her position.

Sen. Larry Smith, who takes over as Conservative leader on Saturday, said he plans to meet the rest of his leadership team to figure out if, among other things, Beyak should be removed from the aboriginal peoples committee, given the strong emotional reaction to Beyak’s comments inside and outside the Tory caucus.

“I recognize that it is an important issue, it’s a dark part of our history in terms of what happened to the indigenous people, the children, but let us sit down and do our homework and discuss this properly so that we come out with a balanced approach,” Smith said shortly after being elected as leader.

An exhaustive study on the government-funded, church-operated schools found indigenous children endured widespread sexual and physical abuse.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a member of the same Senate aboriginal committee as Beyak, refused to comment.

Earlier this month, Beyak spoke in the Senate chamber about people with good intentions who worked at the schools, citing what she called examples of students having had positive experiences.

In an open letter to Beyak, the Anglican Church of Canada said that whatever good may have taken place, “the overall view is grim. It is shadowed and dark; it is sad and shameful.”

Beyak’s comments came up during Tuesday’s committee hearing, where senators heard from one of the country’s foremost academic experts on the treaty process.

That led to a louder chorus of calls for Beyak to voluntarily step down from the committee, as well as closed-door discussions about what — if anything — could be done to remove her from her post amid concerns that her comments could derail the committee’s work of looking into the Crown’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran said she believed Beyak’s comments don’t support the committee’s work.

“I have real concerns about senators articulating a view of Canada in our 150th year that really appears to be 150 years old instead of looking ahead,” McPhedran said.

Liberal Sen. Charlie Watt, one of the longest-serving members of the Senate, said residential school survivors didn’t appreciate Beyak’s comments, which he said showed she didn’t have a clear understanding of what happened in the institutions.

A number of senators said Beyak has the right to say what she wants, even if people disagree with her.

“I have stood on a soapbox promoting freedom of speech,” Conservative Sen. Don Plett said on his way into the caucus meeting where Smith was elected leader.

“For me to say freedom of speech is only valuable as long as that freedom of speech agrees with me, that would be wrong.”

Smith takes over from fellow Quebec Sen. Claude Carignan, who had been the Conservative leader in the Senate since 2013, when Stephen Harper appointed him to the post in the midst of the Senate spending scandal.

Smith, a former Canadian Football League player and commissioner said Senate Conservatives need to decide how partisan they want to be in a changing Senate chamber and are likely to take a new approach as an opposition party.

Those details will be decided over the coming days, he said.