Lynn Beyak cast herself as a defender of free speech and a victim of political correctness moments before senators voted summarily Thursday to suspend her without pay from the Senate for refusing to delete derogatory letters about Indigenous people from her website.
The suspension applies only to the remainder of the current session of Parliament; she'll be able to resume sitting as a senator when a new session begins following the Oct. 21 federal election.
However, if Beyak continues to refuse to comply with remedial measures recommended by the Senate's ethics committee, the upper chamber could consider further action against her in the future.
In a report last month, the committee recommended that Beyak be suspended, that she complete, at her own expense, "educational programs related to racism" towards Indigenous people; apologize in writing to the Senate; and delete the offending letters from her website. It also recommended the Senate administration remove the offending letters if Beyak doesn't do so herself.
In a speech just prior to the vote on the committee's report, an emotional Beyak pleaded for just one of her fellow senators to ask that the matter be adjourned until next week to give her colleagues time to consider it more carefully. No one stepped up and a voice vote to adopt the report was taken immediately without further debate. Conservative Sen. Don Plett asked that the vote be "on division," meaning some senators were opposed but would not insist on standing up one by one for a recorded vote.
Beyak, appointed to the Senate in 2013 by former prime minister Stephen Harper, was kicked out of the Conservative caucus last year over her refusal to remove the letters from her website.
In her speech, Beyak doubled down on her contention that there was nothing racist in the letters. She said her only sin is refusing to censor the free expression of Canadians and she called the proposed penalty "totalitarian" and unworthy of a free country like Canada.
"This is a critical day. Either senators are free to speak without fear of reprisal or we are not," she told the Senate.
"The only conduct or action that is condemned is my refusal to censor Canadians and shut down debate about sensitive issues on which Canadians have expressed various opinions."
The letters were posted in response to a 2018 speech in which Beyak argued that Indian residential schools did a lot of good for Indigenous children, although many suffered physical and sexual abuse and thousands died of disease and malnutrition.
The Senate's ethics officer, Pierre Legault, concluded in March that five of the letters contained racist content, suggesting that Indigenous people are lazy, chronic whiners who are milking the residential-schools issue to get government handouts. Beyak refused to accept Legault's order that she delete the letters and apologize to the Senate, which prompted the upper house's ethics committee and finally the Senate as a whole to subsequently take up the matter.
In her speech Thursday, Beyak cited a letter of support she received last week from a retired Manitoba judge who wrote that her "crime was refusing to go along with the politically correct version of the prevailing orthodoxy pertaining to Indigenous issues."
But Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett tweeted that the issue "was never about political correctness — it's about racism that hurts people."
In a post on Twitter, Bennett thanked the Senate for "denouncing racism and for moving to take down the hateful letters" on Beyak's website.