After hearing testimony about the atrocities committed in residential schools, Senator Lynn Beyak asked survivors at the Senate's Aboriginal peoples committee Wednesday what they thought about her plan for a national audit on all First Nations spending.
Beyak asked John Morrisseau and Doris Young, two elderly Indigenous people who faced abuse in school, if they thought it was appropriate to be spending money on renaming buildings, like Ottawa's Langevin Block, named after one of the architects of the residential schools, when there are children on reserve without clean drinking water.
"The speech that caused so much hurt and distress was actually a speech about taxes," Beyak said of the remarks she delivered in the Red Chamber when she defended the institutions as well-intentioned.
In fact, little of her initial speech was devoted to the subject of taxes, but rather a recounting of the "good deeds" committed by religious teachers who "didn't mean to hurt anybody."
(According to the official Hansard transcript of her speech in the Senate, Beyak said the word "tax" or "taxpayer" only twice in a nearly 20-minute speech. The full text of her remarks is available here.)
"That's my mission here in the Senate, the wise use of tax dollars," Beyak continued. "It seems like our priority is skewed so I have asked for a national audit of all dollars coming in and out of all reserves."
The survivors, who had only just finished delivering emotional testimony about their experiences, seemed befuddled by the question.
"I'm not sure how to respond," Young said. "Talking about tax dollars, I don't know." The woman, a teacher who lives near The Pas in Manitoba, said politicians have long perpetuated the myth that First Nations people don't pay tax.
"When you start talking about tax dollars, it puts up some real walls. There might be another avenue that could be explored, just not talking about taxes."
Sinclair says no need for Indigenous audit
Senator Murray Sinclair, the former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a friend of the two survivors, said he could not let Beyak's question slide.
"I want to thank Senator Beyak for clarifying that her speech was really only about taxes and that therefore nothing else was to be taken seriously," he said.
"Keeping that in mind, I'm going to send you copies of the Auditor General reports for the last several years in which every auditor has pointed out that Indigenous people in this country have been the most audited people of any government program.
"Auditing them any further is not necessary. They have to account for their money more than anybody," the former top Manitoba judge said, while Beyak smiled and nodded her head.
The committee invited Young and Morrisseau to testify as it gathers recommendations on how to best establish a new relationship between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.
As part of the study, the committee has heard from historians about treaty agreements, lawyers on Aboriginal title and Innu jurists on land claims, among other such experts. Regardless of the topic at hand, nearly all of the committee's discussions have included testimony about the negative, intergenerational effects of the residential school system.
Beyak's opinions 'unexplainable'
Beyak has stood by her rosy depiction of the schools, rejecting calls to apologize or step down from the committee tasked with studying Indigenous issues. She told CBC News Monday that she doesn't need any more education about the institutions, that she "suffered " alongside the survivors, and dismissed coverage of her comments as "fake news."
Independent Manitoba Senator Marilou McPhedran apologized to the survivors on Beyak's behalf Wednesday.
A spokesman for interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said in a statement to CBC News that Beyak's views on residential schools do not reflect those of the party.
"Ms. Ambrose has been clear that she finds the Senator's opinions unexplainable and [she] rejects any rationalization that excuses this dark part of Canadian history."
Nunavut Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson stood by his fellow Tory, and her place on the committee, but said the time has come for her to apologize for the comments, something he thinks will "resolve this issue."
"I know how painful any words that were positive, saying good things about residential schools, have been. I'm very sorry that so many people were hurt. But I do believe we need to have a full range of viewpoints," he said in an interview with CBC News after the meeting.
Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, said Beyak is a senator who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper under the old partisan process, and others, who have challenged her remarks, have been appointed on the basis of merit.
"Let me start by distinguishing between Senator Beyak and Senator Murray Sinclair. I don't want to suggest that one class of senators is inherently superior to another class of senators [but] to be able to have, in the Senate, senators of the quality of Murray Sinclair, is a tribute to the modernization, and a more independent, less partisan Senate," he said.
He said Canadians concerned about the presence of the likes of Beyak, and Senator Don Meredith, in the Red Chamber should find comfort in the fact that new appointments to the Senate are of "high quality."
But Harder conceded that the controversy surrounding these two senators has been a "kick in the gut" that has temporarily derailed efforts by the Senate to improve its standing among Canadians.
When asked if Beyak should be removed from the Aboriginal peoples committee, Harder said that is a question for Conservative leadership and they have to ask themselves if they want her to be the Tory voice on Indigenous issues.
"I have met with the new leader [Larry Smith] in the Senate and have reminded him that this is going to be a test of his leadership," he said.