Senator Murray Sinclair responds to Lynn Beyak's defence of residential schools

Senator Murray Sinclair responds to Lynn Beyak's defence of residential schools

Senator Murray Sinclair says preserving the record of the wrongdoing committed under the Indian residential school system is the best way to fight back against those who deny its negative impact on Indigenous people.

Sinclair, who was the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made the comments to Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC Radio's The Current Tuesday evening.

"If we can preserve that record for future generations, then these deniers will have a diminishing population of people who will believe them," Sinclair said

Tremonti asked Sinclair if fellow legislators avoid him in the halls of Parliament as he pushes for the implementation of the 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

"There are still some people resisting — not just in the Senate, but elsewhere," Sinclair said. 

"People tend to forget that there have always been those who are deniers of history and they deny history for their own reasons. They deny, perhaps, because they're slow-minded and dim-witted, but more importantly it's because I think they believe in a certain delusion about our history that they are unwilling to give up."

- THE CURRENT: Public forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women

Sinclair was speaking at The Current's fifth public forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. The full forum will be broadcast on April 4.

'Lynn Beyak, please stand in my shoes,'

Sinclair's comments follow a firestorm of controversy around Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak, who sits on the Senate's Aboriginal people's committee.

The Ontario senator spoke in defence of the "well-intentioned" people who ran the residential school system and said the commission's report was negatively skewed and "didn't focus on the good."

Beyak has repeatedly said she stands by her comments and recently said she had "suffered" alongside residential school survivors.

Matilda Wilson, a residential school survivor from Smithers, B.C., rose to speak at the forum and called Beyak's comments "a slap in the face." Wilson shared her own experience being taken to a residential school in 1956. 

"When I was six years old and my brother was five, and we still crawled in our mom and dad's bed, that really did something to us when they took us away to boarding school and we were never to see them for seven years," she said, breaking into tears as two women came to her side.

"I want to let you know it still hurts a lot and I want this person, Lynn Beyak, please stand in my shoes."

Wilson's daughter Ramona disappeared at age 16 and her body was later found in a bush area near the airport in Smithers, B.C. Wilson said her daughter's death, alcoholism among Indigenous people and the over-representation of Indigenous children in provincial care systems are linked to the intergenerational trauma of the residential school system

'We should never forget'

Tremonti asked Sinclair if he had anything to say about Beyak's comments.

"I spent all day telling people no comment," Sinclair said, referring to reporters' attempts earlier that day to elicit comment from the former judge on his fellow senator's latest remarks. But offered an explanation to Tremonti as to how he responds to people who ask why Indigenous people don't "get over" the residential school experience.

"My answer has always been: Why can't you always remember this? Because this is about memorializing those people who have been the victims of a great wrong. Why don't you tell the United States to 'get over' 9/11? Why don't you tell this country to 'get over' all the veterans who died in the Second World War, instead of honouring them once a year?" he said.

"We should never forget, even once they have learned from it, because it's part of who we are. It's not just a part of who we are as survivors and children of survivors and relatives of survivors, it's part of who we are as a nation. And this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people."

Sinclair had responded to some of Beyak's comments in the Senate chamber, but has declined CBC's requests for an interview in the past.

You can watch The Current's virtual reality documentary Highway of Tearshere and watch the archived Facebook Live of the event below.