When closing one of his House of Commons speeches condemning slavery in 1791, English abolitionist and member of Parliament William Wilberforce remarked that "you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has ensured that most, if not all, Canadians have been exposed to its main finding: cultural genocide was committed against indigenous peoples through the Indian Residential Schools (IRS). There were approximately 130 residential schools across Canada that housed — akin to incarcerated — approximately 150,000 indigenous children from the 1870s to 1996. At least 6,000 children died due to systemic maltreatment and countless thousands more have suffered the direct and intergenerational effects of these institutions. Physical, mental and sexual abuse were not tangential elements of these places — they were woven into the very fabric of the IRS system in order to "kill the Indian in the child."
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the term genocide, argued genocide can be perpetrated through physical or cultural methods. Physical genocide biologically destroys communities; cultural genocide destroys what it means to have community membership. Lemkin saw no difference in severity.
In this setting, Sen. Lynn Beyak has come under fire for not necessarily denying the genocidal residential schools, but for her praise of what she calls the "good" work of "well-intentioned" IRS employees. Her statements are troubling because they selectively accentuate partial histories and create opportunities for inaccurate understandings of the IRS system. Moreover, plenty of "good" people have committed — and will continue to commit — human rights violations in Canada and elsewhere. Beyak later argued her speech was not about residential schools, but about taxes and the need to audit indigenous communities. This red herring serves to confuse and repeats old discriminatory tropes.
Beyak undoubtedly has been exposed to at least the executive summary of the TRC and should understand Canadian colonial atrocity processes, as well as their current ramifications. Beyak’s claim that she has "suffered" with indigenous peoples and her insidious attempts at silencing condemnation by claiming her controversy is "fake news" demonstrate an underlying resistance to reconciliation.
In making her comments, the senator may not have had malicious intent. But the comments are malevolent nonetheless. Numerous indigenous authors have spoken out against her suspect statements by setting historical records and present realities straight. I should certainly hope that one would find it difficult to contrive silver linings or progressive aspects of atrocities against indigenous children. Residential schools were not benevolently educational — they were both subtle and brutal forms of genocide. If a person with Beyak’s power and privilege still possesses rose-coloured blinders of Canadian atrocities, what about the rest of us?
I believe Beyak’s comments are garnering so much attention because every one of us knows at least one person who holds similar or even more discriminatory views about indigenous peoples. Beyak’s comments are far from isolated. Her remarks are quickly becoming a national referendum on how to cultivate accurate understandings of the residential schools, understand the long-term negative effects of these places and enforce the rights of indigenous peoples. Beyak’s ideas are unfortunately commonplace, but in this era of reconciliation it is our duty as Canadians — indigenous and settler alike — to create mutual understandings to truly create a nation of universal and equal human rights for all.
As a settler, I perhaps don’t have the standing to lead conversations on the rights of indigenous peoples — that is for them to lead — but it is important to recognize that for reconciliation to work, it will take many thousands of settlers to be honest about the foundations of this country and how political processes have impacted groups differently, and to be solid allies for indigenous peoples. Some words that have been lost in this era of extreme politics, yellow journalism and discriminatory populism are empathy, compassion, understanding and honesty. These four things are required for progress on the creation of a more just society in Canada.
Empathetic and unwavering education is the most potent weapon to create this just society. Canadians want to be honest and moral and indigenizing understandings of Canadian history and contemporary society are the honest kind of national identity re-examination we need.
The Canada 150 campaigns ensure 2017 will be a year-long birthday party with an apex on Saturday, July 1. My hope is that the celebrations do not overshadow the very real problems indigenous communities face: displacement due to development projects, systemic underfunding of indigenous institutions, lack of child welfare resources, water supply problems and other violations of the rights of indigenous peoples. If the era of reconciliation should mean anything, it is that universal and equal human rights should be taken seriously in the next 150 years of Canada’s existence.
Beyak’s statements represent a moment of reflection. We cannot turn our backs to difficult problems that need solutions — that would be simply un-Canadian — and we can never say that we did not know.
Andrew Basso is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science at the University of Calgary. He focuses on human rights, displacement and indigenous issues.