Canadian Anglican leaders have upbraided Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak for her assertion that the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was overly negative in its representation of the Indian residential school system.
In an open letter published March 20, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald and General Secretary Archdeacon Michael Thompson said they were “dismayed” by Beyak’s comments, and stated there was “nothing good” about the residential school system.
In a March 7 speech to the senate, Beyak had criticized the TRC for letting the negative aspects of the Indian residential school system—which its report concluded constituted “cultural genocide”—overshadow the “good deeds” of “well-intentioned” teachers.
Beyak made similar remarks during a recent meeting of the Senate’s Aboriginal People’s committee (of which she is a member), saying she was disappointed the TRC’s report “didn’t focus on the good” done by Christian teachers.
Though the open letter acknowledged that “a small minority of survivors” had a good experience at the schools, 35 of which were operated by the Anglican Church of Canada, it stressed that the schools were an attempt at “cultural genocide.”
The letter pointed out the many ways the system was an affront to the rights and dignity of Indigenous people, from its stated goal of “killing the Indian in the child” by stripping away all aspects of Indigenous culture to the rampant physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse perpetrated against many students. The abuses “were nothing less than crimes against humanity,” the letter said.
“There was nothing good about taking away children, removing their traditional dress, cutting their hair, taking away their name, confiscating their personal effects and giving them a number,” the letter said. “…There was nothing good about experimenting with children’s diet to monitor the impact on their dental hygiene or their digestive systems. There was nothing good about pressing children into forced labour. It was state-sanctioned cruelty.”
Despite the presence of “good, well-intentioned teachers, nurses and staff” in the residential schools, “the overall view is grim. It is shadowed and dark; it is sad and shameful,” the letter said.
The letter also noted the link between the residential schools and the many problems plaguing Indigenous communities as a result of intergenerational trauma, such as high addiction rates, poor health and family dysfunction.
“There is nothing good about Indigenous people [being] treated as ‘second class,’ the blatant evidence of which persists in lower funding for health care, education, policing and emergency services. It is a travesty,” it added.
Hiltz, MacDonald and Thompson encouraged Beyak to review the TRC report, and especially its 94 Calls to Action, and to listen to the stories and perspectives of survivors.
“It is Indigenous people who have the authority to tell the story. It is our duty to receive that story and allow it to change us,” they said.
The open letter also noted that the Anglican church has offered apologies for its role in running the schools, and has committed to support healing programs through the Anglican Healing Fund.
Beyak’s comments have been criticized by many of her fellow-parliamentarians.
According to the CBC, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Beyak’s comments spoke to a need for further education about residential schools, and the Indigenous affairs critic for the Conservative Party, Cathy McLeod, said the comments do not reflect the party’s position.
Others were strident. NDP MP Roméo Saganash, a residential school survivor, has called for her resignation; Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck, chair of the Senate’s Aboriginal People’s committee, has asked her to resign from the committee.
So far, Beyak has stood by her comments, saying she will neither resign from the committee nor give up her seat in the senate