OTTAWA — One of the perceived front-runners in the Conservative leadership race is calling Sen. Lynn Beyak's comments about residential schools "unfortunate" — but Kevin O'Leary is stopping short of saying he'd kick her out of caucus.
In a roundtable interview Thursday with The Canadian Press, O'Leary said he assumes Beyak is a good person, and that if he were the party's leader he would sit her down to discuss a situation he called "very embarrassing."
But the businessman and reality-TV star — whose leadership campaign has been predicated, in part, on his reputation as an Ottawa outsider — at first appeared to know little about Beyak or indeed the history of Canada's residential schools.
"I don't agree (with Beyak)," he said, eventually.
"There's nothing good about that situation. I can't change the past, I would never want that to happen again so we've got to look at that. Clearly, that comment was unfortunate."
It took O'Leary a while to get there, however.
Beyak has been making national headlines for weeks after a speech in the Senate that said some good had come out of the government-funded, church-operated schools, which operated from the 1870s to 1996 and subjected generations of indigenous children to sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Indigenous leaders, fellow senators and selected MPs have been clamouring for her resignation ever since.
But the question initially appeared lost on O'Leary, who at one point even seemed to agree with the senator:"There probably are good people," he said.
When the question was rephrased, he seemed to confuse the issue with the long-standing debate about how best to finance First Nations education.
"That's the First Nations issue ... That is part of a much bigger dialogue than just the schools because what I hear from those leaders now is they want to participate in a full economic overhaul," he said.
"In other words, they don't want charity anymore, they want growth including their ability to have some control over their children's education and future."
Finally, upon further clarification, O'Leary said he would ask Beyak to apologize if he was in charge.
"Now I know what you are taking about," he said. "Look, that is really a shame and ... I'm going to make the assumption she's a good person, she didn't mean that."
Beyak has resisted repeated calls to resign or even to apologize for her remarks.
Earlier Thursday, NDP indigenous affairs critic Romeo Saganash — a residential school survivor himself — urged interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to kick Beyak out of the Tory caucus.
Beyak's words and behaviour are juvenile, Saganash said in a letter to Ambrose, calling her "callous and unemotional" for refusing to apologize even though it's clear the comments caused outrage and hurt to an entire segment of the population.
"This arrogance makes her particularly incapable of performing the most basic duties of a senator," Saganash wrote. "Immediate action is required."
Ambrose, too, has stopped short of calling on Beyak to quit.
The senator's views do not reflect the Conservative position on residential schools and the interim leader finds her opinions "unexplainable," spokesman Jake Enwright said in a statement.
"Residential schools were a dark period in Canadian history," he said.
"Aboriginal children were taken from their families and these children lost their culture, language, and were often abused physically and sexually. It will take generations to heal the damage done to survivors of residential schools."
Ambrose rejects any rationalization that excuses this dark part of Canadian history, he added.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press