OTTAWA—Claims by a Conservative senator that residential schools were “well-intentioned” is like trying to find some good in the Holocaust, says an NDP MP who spent 10 years in a system that isolated thousands of indigenous children from their families and traditions.
Romeo Saganash (Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou) was among the sharpest critics Thursday as politicians of all stripes were quick to condemn the comments by Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak as ill-informed and hurtful.
“We’re talking about genocide here, and no one can say that there were good parts of genocide and bad parts,” said Saganash, who was taken from his home as child to attend residential schools.
“It’s like saying, ‘Well, there are some good sides to what Hitler did to the Jewish community’,” he told reporters outside the Commons.
Saganash called for Beyak, named to the Senate in 2013 by former prime minister Stephen Harper, to resign her seat. Others questioned how Beyak could continue to sit on the Senate’s aboriginal affairs committee.
Related:Tory senator says ‘good deeds’ of residential schools were overshadowed
Beyak made the comments Tuesday in the Senate during a debate around the overrepresentation of indigenous women in prisons.
The Ontario Senator said little about that topic and instead presented what she called a “somewhat different side of the residential school story.”
She spoke of the “kindly and well-intentioned men and women… whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports.”
“Obviously, the negative issues must be addressed, but it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good,” Beyak said.
In her speech, Beyak did acknowledge the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which over five years compiled the harrowing stories of the residential school system and issued 94 recommendations.
“Mistakes were made at residential schools — in many instances, horrible mistakes that overshadowed some good things that also happened at those schools,” she said.
Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the commission before his appointment to the senate, immediately pressed Beyak on her views following her speech.
“I am a bit shocked, senator, that you still hold some views that have been proven to be incorrect over the years, but, nonetheless, I accept that you have the right to hold them,” he said in the chamber Tuesday.
Beyak wasn’t talking Thursday. Shirley Molloy, Beyak’s executive assistant, responded to an interview request by pointing to the senator’s speech on Tuesday.
“The senator has nothing further to add to her remarks in the Senate Tuesday, wherein she commented on both the negatives and positives of the residential school system,” Molloy wrote.
But the condemnation flowed on Parliament Hill as politicians urged Beyak to read the findings of the commission report, which found that residential schools “permanently damaged” many students and left their lives “disrupted and scarred.”
“Residential schools were a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples,” the report stated.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett called the comments “unfortunate and misguided.”
“The purpose of the residential schools was wrong. It was to take the Indian out of the child,” Bennett told reporters on Parliament Hill.
Bennett said that Beyak’s viewpoint underscores the need for better education to make all Canadians aware of the history of residential schools and its ongoing impacts that she said remain a “black mark for our country.”
Others stopped short of calling for Beyak’s resignation, but nonetheless distanced themselves from her viewpoint.
“It’s a terrible comment. I think the senator should do some research to find out what happened to indigenous people,” said Senator Patrick Brazeau, former national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
Senator Vern White, a long-time police officer and former police chief who worked in indigenous communities for years, added: “I’ve seen nothing good come out of residential schools, and I’ve seen a lot of heartache and death and suicides, so you will never hear me espouse one good word about residential schools.”
Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, her party’s indigenous affairs critic, offered no defence and instead encouraged Beyak to read up on the topic “because clearly it has been a sad chapter of our history.
“What’s important for her is to reflect on the comments, reflect on how her comments hurt people who are already struggling,” McLeod said.
At least 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit youth went through the residential schools and an unknown number — estimated to be in the thousands — died.
In 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper delivered an emotional apology on behalf of Canadians for the residential schools system.
He said the two objectives of the schools were to “isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.”
“Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country,” Harper said in the Commons.
He said it’s now recognized that the consequences of residential schools “were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
“There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again,” the prime minister said.