Yes, it is that bad: What are residential schools, and who is Senator Lynn Beyak?

On Tuesday, March 7th, Senator Lynn Beyak took to the floor of the Canadian senate to speak about residential schools. For those of you outside of Canada, residential schools were institutions of cultural genocide. From the 19th century up until the 1970s, Indigenous children were ripped from their homes and transported to schools where they were robbed of their First Nations identity. Children were refused their language, their spiritual teachings and practice, their culture, and their human dignity. The objective of this institution was to assimilate and anglicize Indigenous communities by slowly stamping out First Nations identities.

The horrific accounts of physical and sexual abuse, and inhumane living conditions were made public in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report. Findings showed that residential schools claimed the lives of over 3,000 First Nations children due to malnutrition, neglect, and abuse.

When Senator Beyak spoke to the Senate last week, she decided to ignore the ‘bad press’ residential schools have received. Instead, Beyak chose to focus on the positive. According to Beyak, residential schools were full of “well-intentioned men and women… whose remarkable works, good deeds and historic tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”

Before you brush off her comments as merely ignorant and uninformed, I’d like to tell you a little about Beyak’s professional experience. For several years, she dedicated her talents to education, even serving as vice-chair of the Fort Frances-Rainy River board of education. This district is home to 23 First Nations reserves, and over 500 native Ojibwe* speakers. Currently, Beyak is a member of three Senate committees: Agriculture and Forestry, National Security and Defence, and Aboriginal Peoples.

What we see in Beyak’s CV is that on at least two separate occasions she has served as an influential, public-sector authority figure while interacting with First Nations issues and communities. Beyak’s comments about residential schools do not reflect ignorance but a total unwillingness to confront the devastating human rights abuses inflicted on generations of First Nations people. As a member of the Aboriginal Peoples Senate committee, Beyak is considered an authority on issues relevant to Canada’s Indigenous population. Even though Beyak refuses to recognize the way in which government institutions were developed specifically to oppress and marginalize Indigenous peoples in Canada, her opinion is relevant when it comes to debating legislation pertinent to First Nations issues.

The process of coming to terms with the treatment of First Nations people has only just begun in Canada. It appears as though non-Indigenous Canadians are starting to listen and engage with First Nations communities in order to understand the complexities of systemic oppression as experienced by Indigenous peoples. Beyak’s comments are harmful to this process because they legitimize the outright denial of any wrongdoing on the part of the institution (and by extention, the Canadian government).

Beyak is arguing that due to the ‘good intentions’ of the individuals responsible for residential schools, the institution itself was not that bad. Yes, Senator Beyak, they were that bad. It’s time to accept that Canada’s history is no different than any other colonial power and fully commit to dismantling systemic oppression.

Sign the petition calling for the resignation of Senator Beyak here.

*Ojibwe is a Central Algonquian language spoken by the Anishinaabe people in the Great Lakes region. Ojibwe speakers can be found in Canada (Ontario and Manitoba) and in the United States (Wisconsin and Minnesota). Read more about Ojibwe by clicking here.