Senator Lynn Beyak, a member of the Canadian senate committee on Aboriginal people, was criticized for saying there were some ‘good things’ about residential schools, where an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their communities—where some 6, 000 children died due to malnourishment or disease.
Her rhetoric is more common than most people know. She criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for not focusing on “the good” of “well intentioned” institutions. The fallout sparked social media outrage, along with kind requests that she brush up on her history.
To this she stated, “There are two sides to every story,” and then she talked about her friend, an ‘Aboriginal fellow and his wife,’ who have familiarized her with the Native experience. The white icing on the cake was when she stated, “The best way to heal is to move forward together. Not to blame, not to point fingers, not to live in the past."
This is all too familiar for me. White people talk like this all the time in polite conversation. It’s hard not to be petty about this, because every enlightened and conceivably reasonable conversation or approach has been had. These people are willfully ignorant, and no amount of explaining or reasoning can lead them to truth, accountability, or logic. Also, it’s not our job to educate people when they’re combative and limited in comprehension.
Am I the only one who noticed she speaks like Vincent D'Onofrio in Men in Black, where he plays a murderous alien wearing a skin suit? It’s like her body resists the garbage words that escape her mouth. It feels like an invasion to hear her speak. So excuse this observation, but she’s got a Trump-esque appearance and vocabulary.
I don’t think she sees residential schools as genocidal. Would she say some good came from the holocaust? That some of the children had never traveled on a train before they died, so some good came from it? Is this a rhetorical leap? Not really—not when you hear testimony from residential school survivors.
Beyak hides behind the few accounts of survivors who recall positive experiences during their time away from home. It’s unconscionable to do that, because it defies logic. The impetus for those schools was evil. Assimilation isn’t a good intention unless you’re white, and even then it takes a certain amount of delusion to buy in. The people who have talked to me about their positive experiences at Indian school seem to be the type of people who are trying to pull goodness from the world, and their words should always be contextualized when relayed, because we’re dealing with sensitive and triggering content. Their words matter, but Beyak is not an advocate for any of us. She’s a liability.
One person’s singular experience does not negate the thousands of deaths, the endless accounts of violence and sexual abuse, or the wrongful and violent way language was forbidden along with ceremony. If Beyak can’t do the bare minimum to familiarize herself with contemporary criticisms of historical erasure and racist rhetoric, how can we elevate the conversation with people like her in the room?
If Beyak can be explicitly racist, or ignorant, how can we ever hope to address the more subtle racist discrimination imposed on our communities?
Kenji Yoshino, a writer I admire, discusses the more subtle aspects of discrimination people (who are not straight, white, and male) deal with. He believes that on an institutional level, on a governmental level, there is a judicial bias toward assimilation. Beyak is displaying that discrimination perfectly. She wants us to change our perception and assimilate by adopting white ideologies and perspectives on history. We must address the issue socially, via social media and beyond.
How could we expect the system to work for us? Especially concerning retribution and accountability? The fact she’s taken a seat on issues that directly concern us shows the government is failing.
In Yoshino’s work he states, “It is only when we leave the law that civil rights suddenly stops being about particular agents of oppression and particular victimized groups and starts to become a project of human flourishing in which we all have a stake.”
I think everything Beyak touches has been ruined to some effect, including the “Aboriginal fellow” she used to coopt her defiant ignorance. She will ruin the communities she tries to save by simply believing she is an authority on these communities. Her comments prove her to be grossly irresponsible with the truth. She manipulates it to serve her inherent racism, and inability to confront issues like historical trauma, genocide, and racism in North America.
Our best hope isn’t to appeal to her better nature. We have to run on the assumption it doesn’t exist. We must engage in aggressive discourse that won’t permit statements like this to pervade the enlightened discussions our communities are having right now. Beyak has to be interrogated as a hostile witness. Bearing witness to Native history takes a level of human empathy she probably won’t have unless she experiences a similar tragedy, or carries a similar history.
Until she’s willing to let us take her grandchildren, and assimilate them into our culture, I don’t believe she will understand the type of trauma residential schools brought to our communities. I don’t think Beyak should speak on the issue, frankly, until she gives us a family member to raise as our own, to introduce them to our language and culture, which is arguably more civil than hers.
I believe by raising these absurd propositions, and contextualizing her stupidity within the larger world, and the contemporary conversations she’s ignorant to, we could actually implement a set standard of intelligence non-Native people should carry before they enter our communities and institutions.
But we must be loud, unforgiving, and relentless, because their racism will continue to overwhelm our children in schools, institutions, the workplace, the media, our homes, if we don’t assert that we’re done in a firm and final way. We’re done reasoning with people who intentionally harm us, and Lynn Beyak is doing that, without questions, because several Native people have reached out to her politely, and reasonably, to educate her on their experiences. She denied them a voice when she refused to hear them—when she refused to process the thousands of deaths, to process the base understanding that genocide is never good. It’s ultimately damaging, and no single account can dismantle the evil it’s done.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.