Ontario Sen. Lynn Beyak is again facing suspension from the Red Chamber for failing to complete her anti-racism training — a project that started off on the wrong foot when she told her instructors she was Métis because her parents had adopted an Indigenous child.
The Senate’s ethics committee has released details of Beyak’s ill-fated training sessions with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) last fall.
Beyak was supposed to attend three days of Indigenous “cultural competency training.” But trainers feared she would make little progress in understanding the plight of Indigenous peoples because, on her first day of training, she made dubious claims about her own ancestry, according to an October 2019 report prepared by the OFIFC.
Métis peoples are a distinct subsection of the larger Indigenous community. While definitions vary, the federal government generally classifies Métis people as those who can trace their lineage to the Red River settlement and the intermarriages there between European settlers and local Indigenous women that produced a distinct culture, with its own traditions and language.
“Beyak explained that her Métis identity resulted from her family’s adoption of an Indigenous child (her adopted sister). The senator’s understanding and presentation of her Metis identity were flagged as a concern by the trainers … and by other participants,” said Nicole Meawasige, the training coordinator, in an email to Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault.
Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand said Beyak’s “weird and strange sudden pronouncement” of Métis ancestry is offensive.
“I want to say in the strongest terms possible that even if she were Métis, the Métis Nation would disavow all of the discriminatory statements and actions that have come from this senator,” he said. “We deplore the way Senator Beyak has tried to say that it’s OK for her to publish racist comments because she claims to be Métis.
“Stay away from our nation. Identity theft is a crime.”
Ultimately, Beyak didn’t make it past the first lesson because her “inflexibility and conduct made the learning environment unsafe,” said the trainers’ report to Legault. She was asked to leave the premises by OFIFC, the report said.
Last Friday, the Senate ethics committee recommended that Beyak be suspended a second time from the upper house because she failed to take her anti-racism training seriously and offered an insufficient apology after posting anti-Indigenous letters on her Senate website. The Senate will vote on her suspension when it returns this week.
Before being asked to leave the training sessions, Beyak told her trainers that there is no racism in northwestern Ontario. Beyak represents Dryden, Ont. in the Senate.
When trainers asked Beyak to evaluate one case of a First Nations man being denied a pre-booked room at a hotel in Dryden, Beyak asked whether the man had been turned away for other reasons — for having “dirty hair” or looking “grubby or threatening.”
The man in the story was the trainer’s husband. Beyak said she was skeptical of the story because the trainer — whom she described as looking “white privileged … with lovely auburn hair and flawless skin” — would have been a “reassuring” presence to the hotel desk clerk.
When the trainer said that the hotel staff’s behaviour could indicate racism and racial profiling, Beyak said she herself had turned away people because of “piercings and dirty hair.” Before her appointment, Beyak was a real estate agent.
According to the trainers, Beyak participated very little in the first day of coursework: “Sen. Beyak was not only explicitly unwilling to engage with the content of the training, but also persistent in her overly biased views.”
She showed little interest in the course material because she felt the “training is irrelevant because she will be reinstated anyway,” the report said.
Beyak repeatedly told trainers she wasn’t interested in the past but was focused rather on discussing current matters, like the proper use of taxation and infrastructure deficit on First Nations.
“History has nothing to do with racism. It’s about what your people are doing to your own people,” the report quotes her as saying.
“In our assessment, Sen. Beyak is not interested in confronting her ill-informed understandings of the contemporary realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The senator is not open to learning about Canadian history, Canadian current policies impacting Indigenous people, nor is she willing to contemplate our shared future, inspired by the spirit of reconciliation,” the OFIFC report concluded.
In her letter to Legault, Beyak said the OFIFC staff dismissed many of her arguments because they saw her as benefitting from “white privilege” and were not willing to entertain debate on the role of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Beyak told Legault she was “appalled” that the centre did not welcome her back for subsequent training, adding she flew to Toronto at considerable personal expense.
Beyak said she was frustrated with how the trainers described the Indian Act, legislation enacted in the 19th century to segregate First Nations people and control most aspects of life on reserves. The trainers said it was a mechanism to keep First Nations people “confined and controlled.” In her letter to Legault, Beyak disagreed.
“I explained that while I accept her understanding of history, mine is different and since were are both well-informed, and neither one of us was there, we would have to agree to disagree.”