After insisting for years that she did nothing wrong, Ontario Sen. Lynn Beyak told her colleagues in the upper house today she now accepts that posting racist letters on her Senate website was “ill-considered” — and she regrets the harm she caused by describing the Indian residential school system in positive terms.
Speaking in the chamber after question period, Beyak said she was wrong to insist on leaving letters up on her website that describe Indigenous people as lazy and inept and use racial epithets to describe First Nations.
“I would like to unreservedly apologize for my actions,” she said. “Because of my belief in free speech, my initial instincts were to leave the letters on the website. After long and careful consideration, I now regret not insisting on their removal.”
The apology comes as the Senate is poised to vote on a report that, if adopted, would suspend Beyak for a second time for failing to complete mandatory anti-racism training.
The letters were sent to Beyak after CBC News reported on comments she made about the Indian residential school system. Beyak praised the “well-intentioned” instructors at these schools and chastised the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for not “focusing on the good” coming out of these institutions. She also grilled residential school survivors about their time at the schools during a Senate committee meeting.
In the months that followed, she posted some of those letters to her official Senate web page and refused to retract her comments. She was suspended and sent to anti-racism training last fall — but she was asked to leave after her first lesson. Instructors at the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres said her “inflexibility and conduct made the learning environment unsafe.”
The northwestern Ontario senator is again facing suspension because the ethics committee found she did not comply with remedial measures they asked her to complete before she could return to the Senate in good standing. A number of senators have said a second suspension isn’t sufficient and outright expulsion would be more appropriate.
When initially asked to apologize last year, Beyak issued a one-sentence statement that didn’t acknowledge the hurt she caused Indigenous people.
On Tuesday, Beyak signalled she is ready to concede she was wrong.
“They were disrespectful, divisive and unacceptable,” she said of the letters. “Regretfully, my actions were unhelpful to the national conversation on this issue.
“While my intent was never to hurt anyone, I see now that my actions did not have their desired effect, which was to promote open and constructive dialogue.”
Beyak said she is “eager to complete the education and sensitivity training that has been prescribed.”
“You’re never too old to learn and to grow,” an emotional Beyak said.
The apology comes on the day the city council in her hometown of Dryden, Ont. started debate on a motion to condemn the senator and to call on her to resign as the Senate representative of the region.