Commentary – It is hard to achieve reconciliation if we allow people to bend the truth

Tom Henihan
These days, the way out of obscurity, especially for no account politicians and senators, is to say something stupid or outrageous and have the media shine a light on you.

Sometimes those outrageous statements are calculated to draw attention to the shameless, obscure moron who says them.

In other instances, the obscure, shameless individual doesn’t know any better but discovers after the fact that they enjoy the attention even if it is negative.

I believe that Senator Lynn Beyak belongs to the latter category. However, that does not render her revisionist statements on Canada’s residential schools any less offensive or any more excusable.

When admonished by her more enlightened peers, some of them having been through the nightmare of residential schools and others with direct knowledge of the devastation those institutions wrought, the ill-informed but obstinate senator doubled down and stood by her statements. She also refused to resign from the senate when it was rightly suggested she should.

There is no paraphrasing how offensive and inane her summation of the residential school system experience is, so I will quote a few passages of what she had to say. Also keep in mind that along with being a senator this woman sits on the Aboriginal People’s Committee.

“There were many people who came from residential schools with good training and good language skills, and, of course, there were the atrocities as well.”

Saying “and of course, there were the atrocities as well,” seems to suggest that the atrocities were just a footnote to the otherwise benevolent residential schools.

And as for language skills, the children had language skills before going to residential schools but from Beyak’s paternalistic, colonialist perspective it wasn’t a useful language.

“The fathers and sons and family members of the nuns and priests, to this day, have to bear the reputation as well, and nobody meant to hurt anybody.”

It is absolutely outrageous to suggest that the stigma attached to the relatives of those who were, if nothing else, guilty by association for having worked in residential schools, is a burden equal with that of former residents, their families and descendants.

If a person, a child, is in a powerless position, forcefully confined in a sinister environment, subjected to deprivation, degradation, physical and sexual abuse, that person’s suffering is absolute and all consuming and cannot be measured by any comparison or lessened by citing any kind of mitigating circumstances.

Beyak should not pronounce on matters of which she possesses neither the empathy nor the knowledge to do so. Only those people on whom this evil was inflicted have the authority to describe the nature of that experience.

If Lynn Beyak suggested that there was an upside to the Holocaust the matter would not be allowed to rest until she resigned the senate and rightly so. Beyak’s revisionist and trivializing statements are equally egregious and are a serious affront to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools, to all First Nations people and to non-aboriginal Canadians who recognize the moral imperative of making restitution and pursuing reconciliation.

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