Lynn Beyak is back on the Senate payroll after suspension over letters condemned as 'racist'

Ontario Sen. Lynn Beyak is back on the public payroll as a full-fledged member of the upper house after her suspension ended with the dissolution of the last Parliament.

But her long-term position in the Senate is still an open question; senators are expected to debate soon whether to suspend her a second time.

Beyak was suspended from the Senate in May after refusing to remove letters from her website that have been widely condemned as racist, and for refusing to apologize for posting them.

Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault investigated Beyak and found she had breached the Senate’s ethics code by posting derogatory letters to her taxpayer-funded website.

Rather than recommending an outright expulsion — as it did with Don Meredith over that former senator’s inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl — the ethics committee proposed a time-limited suspension for Beyak until the end of the last parliamentary session.

That suspension ended on Sept. 11. She has been quietly collecting a cheque from taxpayers ever since.

Beyak also has since hired a staff member and she has been assigned office space in the parliamentary precinct, a spokesperson for the Senate’s internal economy, budgets and administration committee confirmed Tuesday.

We’re going to have to wait to see who comes back. Is it the Sen. Lynn Beyak who left the chamber? Or is it someone who’s been able to grow and understand the damage of what she said and did — and will she take responsibility for it? ​​​​​​– Sen. Marilou McPhedran

But, in recommending the temporary suspension, the ethics committee also said Beyak could face another vote on her suspension — or even outright expulsion from the Senate — if she does not satisfy some other requirements.

Citing the “seriousness of the matter,” the committee has said Beyak must attend, at her own expense, educational programs related to racism toward Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the history of Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada.

In his report, the ethics officer concluded Beyak did not have a strong grasp of what racism actually is.

The committee said Beyak must receive a briefing from the clerk of the Senate about the role and responsibilities of a senator — including a refresher course on the rights, rules and privileges a member of the upper house enjoys.

A spokesperson for the clerk, Jessica Richardson, confirmed the clerk has met with Beyak for this purpose. The Hill Times was first to report Beyak has received this briefing.

The committee also said Beyak must formally apologize, in writing, to all senators for her actions — which the committee concluded failed to uphold the highest standards of dignity inherent to the position of senator. That letter of apology is to be posted publicly online. No such letter has yet surfaced.

The ethics committee is expected to issue a formal progress report on Beyak’s case sometime after the Senate reconvenes next week. A spokesperson for ethics committee, Blair Armitage, would not say how much Beyak has done to this point to meet the committee’s recommendations.

A formal apology, like the one demanded by Senate, would mark a departure for Beyak, who has doggedly insisted she did nothing wrong.

From the beginning, Beyak has said she believes the letters — some of which describe Indigenous people as lazy, opportunistic, pampered and inept — are not racist but rather “edgy and opinionated.” She said they are part of a larger discussion she is trying to foster in Canada about what she called the “positive” experiences of some residential school students.

Beyak dismissed criticism of the letters as political correctness gone awry. She equated her punishment to the totalitarian nightmare described by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984.

Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran, a critic of Beyak’s past actions, said Beyak must attend to these “serious outstanding matters” before we see the “end of this story.”

Ultimately, Beyak’s fate rests in her own hands, McPhedran said.

“We’re going to have to wait to see who comes back. Is it the Sen. Lynn Beyak who left the chamber? Or is it someone who’s been able to grow and understand the damage of what she said and did — and will she take responsibility for it? Will she return in good faith? We just don’t know,” McPhedran told CBC News.

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran: ‘Will she return in good faith? We just don’t know.’ (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Independent Ontario Sen. Frances Lankin, the senator who first asked the ethics officer to investigate Beyak and the letters, said the senator must comply with all the recommendations or face expulsion.

“If those conditions haven’t been followed then I would be one who would support the follow-through of the process, up to and including removal from the chamber completely,” Lankin said in an interview.

“I’m not interested in a protracted process or a behind-the-scenes negotiation … As far as I’m concerned the rehabilitative conditions have been set out and I await to see how the ethics committee judges her actions. I personally think her conduct was entirely inappropriate.”

Another senator who asked the ethics officer to investigate, Independent Ontario Sen. Ratna Omidvar, agreed that Beyak must follow all the recommendations or face a movement to force her out.

“She must comply with those conditions before she can be a good senator in standing. I think the best outcome to all these situations is when compliance is adhered to and I’m certainly hoping for that outcome for her and for the Senate itself,” Omidvar said in an interview.

Sen. Ratna Omidvar: ‘We could be very pleasantly surprised. She could issue an apology, take the training …’ (CBC)

Omidvar said some senators are open to bringing Beyak back into the fold if she can demonstrate she’s a changed person.

“We could be very pleasantly surprised. She could issue an apology, take the training, sit down for a session with clerk,” Omidvar said.

“Those were conditions she was asked to meet. There were no other conditions and those are what we must judge her by.

“I have seen, myself, on a personal level, people can change.”

After his year-long probe, Legault found Beyak received more than 6,766 emails and letters from members of the public after CBC News first reported on a March 2017 speech in which she defended “well-intentioned” residential school teachers and criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) because it “didn’t focus on the good” in its study of the system.

Most of those emails and letters — 4,282 of them — criticized her speech, while 2,389 were described by Legault as supporting the senator’s positive sentiments about the residential school system.

One letter posted on Beyak’s website says Indigenous people “should be very grateful” for residential schools.

Other writers used inflammatory language and stereotypes to describe Indigenous people and their history.

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