Canada dispatches: appointment of Governor General Mary Simon may move Canada closer to Indigenous reconciliation

[Ian Profiri is JURIST’s new Staff Correspondent for Canada, joining JURIST’s existing teams of correspondents already filing from India and Myanmar. This is his first report in his new capacity.]

Mary Simon became Canada’s first Inuk Governor General on Monday. She is also the first Indigenous person to hold the position in Canada’s 154-year history, and her appointment comes at a time when Canadians are grappling with their common identity in the wake of the recovery of remains at several former residential schools.

Simon has multiple distinctions in the field of Indigenous and Inuit rights. She was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, in northern Quebéc and gained a reputation for her advocacy and leadership in Indigenous concerns. Among other things, Simon was a former ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, the Canadian ambassador to Denmark, and President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a non-profit that represents Inuit people across Canada.

It’s not a surprise that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted her accomplishments in a statement released after the ceremony:

Throughout her distinguished career, Her Excellency [Mary Simon] has shown a deep commitment to advancing social, economic, and human rights issues. She has played a leading role in strengthening the ties between the people of the Arctic regions, both nationally and internationally. … I know that she will contribute her unique experience and perspective to representing Canadians in all their diversity, both here at home and abroad.

The emphasis on reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government has recently been thrown into the spotlight. As of this writing, 1,794 bodies have been recovered at 11 different former residential schools, the sites of mass abuse committed against Canada’s Indigenous population. All of the bodies had no indicators of their existence—outside of the stories repeated by survivors, that is.

Discovery of the bodies of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia this past May initiated the sudden urgency to investigate the remaining sites. That urgency was reignited in the public consciousness soon after when 751 bodies, aligned as if in graves now left unannounced, were recovered just east of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan–the largest group found to date.

The news shocked Canadians. There were outpourings of grief from coast to coast as mourners and survivors placed children’s shoes at vigils at former sites and legislative grounds. Calls for action to hold the Catholic Church, the main facilitator of these “schools” besides the Canadian government, to account for its role went up; groups even petitioned the Vatican for an apology from the Pope, one the papal office has yet to deliver. Politicians at all levels and ideologies agreed that something needed to be done, that reconciliation needs to be at the forefront of the Canadian conversation.

A flurry of policies, funding, and agreements is the background of the Prime Minister’s appointment of Simon.

She appears to be exactly the right person for the role for the current times. In her installation speech, Simon pledged to use her position to work against climate change, advocate for mental health, and work towards reconciliation. On the latter topic, Simon stated “that reconciliation is a way of life and requires work every day. … Reconciliation is getting to know one another.”

Inuit and Indigenous leaders praised the appointment. Nathan Obed, the current president of ITK, stated that Simon “will be the voice of Indigenous peoples and it will help educate those around her.”

If anything, Simon is an improvement over the former Governor General Julie Payette, who was disgracefully removed from her post after allegations of verbal abuse arose from her employees, leaving the position and the Trudeau government in an optics nightmare.

Of course, the usual question arises as with every Governor General appointment: is the position even relevant? The position is fairly procedural in nature. The Governor General is the Queen’s representative in Canada, and, according to Canadian law (s 55 Constitution Act 1867), needs to give “Royal Assent” to every bill passed by the House of Commons, Canada’s group of federally elected representatives.

In the beginning, the position was supervisory, but over time the position became more and more formalistic and advisory. Today, some say, it is nothing more than a relic of a bygone colonial era and needs to be replaced.

(Theoretically, in emergency situations the Governor General could go so far as to stop appointments, veto laws, or even replace the Prime Minister unilaterally, but such extremes have not been routinely tested or even hypothesized in Canada, and it is hard to imagine what kind of emergency scenario would justify such an intervention.)

Francophones have critiqued the appointment of Simon. French-speaking Canadians voiced concerns that such a position should not be held by someone who is not fluent in that language, especially a person that has experience working within the Canadian government.

Legally speaking, there is no requirement for the Governor General to speak both official languages, but that hasn’t stopped less scrupulous commentators venting their frustrations over the language barrier. One political consultant rather unceremoniously asked “was there not, in the whole country, one qualified [Indigenous] person who would also be able to express themselves in French?” Simon speaks English and Inuktitut, and has agreed to learn French.

All of that being said, Trudeau appears to have a political win with this appointment. Considering his party’s failure to vote on the promise to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into law and drop lawsuits against residential school survivors, while dodging criticisms over his failure to live up to his 2015 promise to bring clean water to Indigenous people living on reservations, this signals that the federal government may finally be moving in earnest towards reconciliation.

Or not. It is expected that an election is going to be called soon and Trudeau may just be hoping that this appointment moves the Liberals from minority to majority government territory. Unfortunately, only time will tell if the appointment of Simon proves to be the long-awaited acceleration towards meaningful reconciliation.