Lynn Beyak and the Danger of Misinformation in Government
By: Kelsey Raynard, Contributor
On September 1, 2017, Senator Lynn Beyak of the Conservative Party of Canada published an open letter on her website entitled: “More of the Same Is Not the Answer.” In this letter, Beyak makes many comments about Indigenous peoples and their role in the Canadian government. Namely, she defends the residential school system and pleads Indigenous peoples to “trade your status card for a Canadian citizenship, with a fair and negotiated payout to each Indigenous man, woman and child in Canada.” Senator Beyak no longer has a role in the Conservative caucus, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said earlier this week and many Canadians, including Carolyn Bennett, the government’s Crown-Indigenous relations minister, are now urging Beyak to resign.
Beyak’s rhetoric is dangerous for a number of reasons. Her open letter is laden with statements about Indigenous peoples which are both hurtful and untrue. For instance, Beyak’s suggestion that Indigenous status holders are not Canadian citizens is blatantly incorrect (Indigenous status holders were granted the right to vote and maintain citizenship under the John Diefenbaker administration in 1960). In addition, Beyak, rather inhumanely, suggests that a “negotiated payout” could rectify generations of (well-documented) physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Perhaps most dangerously, Senator Beyak deliberately uses language that almost sounds reasonable. Beyak maintains a hopeful tone throughout her letter and claims to have the best interests of Indigenous peoples in mind. Beyak argues that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, whose mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS) and to document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience, only tells “one side of the story,” yet she openly and unapologetically dismisses this side of the story in favour of a “truth and reconciliation” which aligns with her own beliefs about Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based less on facts and the actual needs of Indigenous peoples and more on misinformation and deeply prejudiced generational myths.
Dr. Rob Robson of the Indigenous Learning department at Lakehead asks, “why is Senator Beyak comfortable in speaking like this?” This is a trend that is apparent on a local, national, and international level. Dr. Robson explains, “Senator Beyak is representative of a fairly substantial portion of the population. Her opinions, which she is entitled to, are extremely hurtful. They are based on a limited understanding and knowledge of Indigenous peoples. And this is both troubling and upsetting.” Many people, even in Thunder Bay, find this rhetoric attractive because it appears to provide a “solution” without challenging ingrained cultural attitudes towards Indigenous peoples. These attitudes are evidenced in countless letters to the editor featured in The Chronicle Journal as well as in City Council’s refusal to support the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association in calling for the resignation of Senator Lynn Beyak. These reactions raise the question: regardless of the “good intentions”of Beyak, of the residential school system, of the City Council of Thunder Bay – how many prejudiced statements and actions is too many? At what point can we no longer justify the actions and intentions of these figures, regardless of the solutions they claim to provide?
Beyak writes, “The real problem, as identified in letters from the grassroots across the nation…is what they themselves identify as the Indian Act Industry in Ottawa…huge bureaucracies, massive expense accounts…with available 5-star accommodations and business class travel, while the Indigenous population is constantly reminded that integration or assimilation is not good for them.”
I would add that the real problem, as identified in the letters from the Indigenous people who both agree and disagree with Beyak, is that Senator Lynn Beyak is a part of this predominantly white, bureaucratic system which silences the voices of Indigenous peoples who have the ability to speak for themselves. The irony of her letter pleading the government to listen to the concerns of Indigenous people is that she is one of the many non-Indigenous voices that purport to know the solutions to problems which are not her own. Yet, just as Beyak so readily criticizes the Canadian government for failing to listen, she too displaces the voices of Indigenous peoples with her own.
Beyak may be correct when she suggests that “more of the same is not the answer.” More non-Indigenous peoples speaking on behalf of, and over top of, the Indigenous peoples whose lives are directly affected by these government documents and ministries is not the answer. More bureaucratic mismanagement of Indigenous peoples and resources is not the answer. I do not claim to know the answer, nor do I claim to speak for the experiences of Indigenous peoples, who generation after generation, have been speaking for themselves.
As a non-Indigenous Canadian, my answer is to close my mouth and listen to these voices. My answer is to hold politicians like Senator Beyak responsible for perpetuating dangerous rhetoric that erases the experiences of Indigenous peoples while absolving non-Indigenous Canadians of their role in reconciliation. My answer is to analyze the many systems of privilege which I myself benefit from, such as the ones that allow me to obtain an education and write articles on this topic, and to have the uncomfortable conversations with family and friends about the entrenched racism in our community. Dr. Robson adds, “part of the responsibility for reconciliation lies in institutions like Lakehead. It is up to all of us to figure out what our role is to help facilitate change and move forward as a community.” We may not have the legislative powers that politicians like Senator Beyak do, but we do have the individual power to change the dialogue about reconciliation in our community. Let’s not underestimate that power.