Calls mount for Senator Beyak to step aside from Aboriginal committee after residential schools remark

Calls mount for Senator Beyak to step aside from Aboriginal committee after residential schools remark

The chair of the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee is asking Senator Lynn Beyak to consider resigning from her post after she made "ill-informed and insensitive" comments about the Indian residential school system.

Liberal Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck's office has received a number of calls and emails since CBC News first reported the remarks Beyak made in the chamber. The Ontario Conservative senator mounted a defence of the system and its "good deeds," and lamented that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not "focus on the good" done at these institutions.

People have been urging Dyck to turf Beyak from her committee, something that can only be done by the Red Chamber's selection committee.

"While I respect the right of all senators to express their own opinions, I am concerned that Senator Beyak's comments may have tarnished the good reputation of the [committee] and that her opinions may negatively impact the future work," Dyck said in a statement.

"Aboriginal people must be able to feel that they can trust the members of the committee and that we respect them."

Dyck initially said she didn't want Beyak to face any sanctions for her comments, but she is now asking her Conservative colleague to "reflect on whether her continued presence on the committee will do more harm than good as we move forward."

Manitoba Senator Don Plett, the Conservative chair of the selection committee, said there are no plans to remove Beyak.

"Our committees are an exceptional opportunity to hear from members of the public on important issues related to public policy," Plett said in a statement. "Taking away an opportunity for a senator to learn about the unique issues facing Aboriginal people, presently and historically, when that senator's sensitivity to these issues has been called into question, seems counterproductive. I am very surprised and disappointed that Senator Dyck would make such a suggestion."

The committee is in the midst of an exhaustive study of the history of Indigenous Peoples and their interactions with the Canadian state, and is expected to make recommendations on how to foster a "new relationship" between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals.

'She hasn't really listened'

In an interview, Dyck said it is rare for her office to receive this volume of calls on an issue.

"I've never received calls complaining or asking me to take action like this."

Dyck said she asked other steering committee members, including Nunavut Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson, to support her in her calls for Beyak to consider resignation but was rebuffed. They simply wanted Beyak to retract her statement, Dyck said.

"Witnesses at committee want to express ideas to us, they want to feel we can be trusted. If she's there, there might be a feeling that people really aren't being heard, that their stories won't be reflected back accurately.

"She hasn't really listened and taken in what the TRC report has said. If she can't listen, people might not want to share their ideas."

Dyck, whose late mother is a residential school survivor, said she's amazed that Beyak has stuck to the "myth of good intentions," especially considering she is from northwestern Ontario, an area that was home to nine residential schools.

One survivor told Dyck that Beyak's remarks are "like a knife has been stuck in their heart."

While there were positive things in the schools, as the TRC itself documented, Dyck said all evidence suggests the vast majority of students had mixed experiences at best.

Conservative Senator Vern White said he won't defend his caucus colleague's comments because he knows all too well the horrors that have emanated from the system.

"Look, I spent 32 years in policing, 19 years in the Arctic, I've investigated dozens of offenders when it came to residential school abuse, hundreds of victims. I've seen nothing good come out of residential schools. My experience, unfairly maybe to some people, has never shown anything positive," he said.

Dyck said she has gone to great lengths to reach Beyak since her remarks first surfaced. Before she sent her statement this morning, she asked one of Beyak's staff members for a telephone number but she was denied.

CBC News has also made multiple requests for comment to Beyak's office since publishing its initial story, but those inquiries have been ignored.