Senator Lynn Beyak’s racist letters that were published on her website have been controversial in the media lately but the news frenzy surrounding Beyak’s actions to support an anti-Indigenous narrative surrounding residential schools are not new to First Nations people.
The anti-Indigenous narrative is to deny that Indigenous people suffered from the racist intentions of residential schools and instead benefited. It seems like everyone has an opinion and is speaking about it in the media but those who are least surprised are Indigenous people.
As a First Nations woman I previously dabbled in the arts field and I travelled the world seeking new opportunities. I was keen and naive as I entered university in my late twenties. My first year was awkward, most of my classmates were right out of high school, and meanwhile I had a four-year-old-daughter at home.
It wasn’t until my second year of specialty arts courses that things went from awkward to toxic.
The class was not related to Indigenous issues at all, so when the teacher began to explain to the class that First Nation women were not likely to succeed in this field, I was dumbfounded.
It occurred to me that I was the only First Nation woman in the class and before I could speak up, the one other First Nations male opposed her comment. Things seemed to go downhill from there.
The teacher continued with a story of how a former First Nations woman student told her that she was racist for saying something similar in class. She laughed; explaining that being called a racist was a joke and went on to completely discredit the First Nation woman’s claims. It was hard to hear what she said next because the class erupted in their own racist, discriminatory and prejudice comments.
Two male students who were right behind me boasted, “I am a white man and this is my country, I’m at the top.”
Other students in the class were already in defense of the teacher, expressing their support. After the class broke up in smaller groups, almost immediately students in my group felt it necessary to continue saying their racist comments, even using derogatory words to describe another race.
Unable to speak what I felt, I sat silent.
Processing only happened with the help of a university counsellor, and we decided to set up a meeting with the teacher and try to talk about what happened in class and how it affected me.
The teacher apologized during the meeting, she wept, “I don’t know how we will get thru this, you called me racist, this is not ok, and everything will not be ok.”
In her eyes she was the victim, not the woman in her story who called her racist. And I was clearly mistaken by her story and what had followed. I left the meeting cringing, the apology felt sloppy.
I attempted to forget the whole ordeal and decided to attend the next class because I was not a quitter and had worked hard to pursue this art long before attending this university. But before class even started a male student uttered discriminatory remarks while making eye contact with me. After that I dropped the course, changed programs and I never took any elective courses in that particular arts program again.
Indigenous people are at the center of Beyak’s controversial support of racist, anonymous letters published on her website yet I am not even surprised that such viewpoints or ignorance exists.