Canada is getting its first Indigenous governor general with the appointment of Inuk leader Mary Simon, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The announcement comes five months after former governor general Julie Payette resigned amid a “scathing” workplace conduct review and as speculation heats up that the federal parties are on the verge of a summer election before the House of Commons returns in the fall.
Trudeau announced on Tuesday morning at the Canadian Museum of History that Queen Elizabeth II has approved the appointment of Simon, a prominent Inuk leader who was formerly the Canadian ambassador to Denmark and who played a leading role in the creation of the Arctic Council.
“Ms. Simon’s career has always been one of breaking down barriers,” Trudeau said.
“Today, after 154 years, our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment.”
Simon is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and has been honoured over the last several decades with the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Gold Order of the Canadian Geographic Society and the Governor General’s Northern Award.
She has also been inducted into the International Women’s Hall of Fame and is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, among other honours.
She is the former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization.
“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path to reconciliation,” Simon told journalists.
She is bilingual in English and Inuktitut, but not in French — normally a key requirement for Crown appointments who are expected to conduct their work and communicate in both official languages.
The Liberals under interim leader Bob Rae opposed the appointment of unilingual Michael Ferguson as auditor general in 2011 for that exact reason, and the entire caucus — including Trudeau — boycotted the House of Commons vote confirming him as such that same year over his lack of French.
Simon said she was denied the chance to learn French while attending a federal day school in Quebec but is committed to doing so.
“I am deeply committed to continuing my French language studies and plan to conduct the business of the governor general of Canada in both official languages,” Simon said.
Trudeau thanked Richard Wagner, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who has been acting as administrator since Payette resigned earlier in the year.
Speculation has been growing over recent months that a federal election could be imminent, and it is the governor general who will grant any request by the prime minister to dissolve Parliament.
Trudeau said he has not discussed any plans for an election with Simon.
Simon was born in Northern Quebec in what is now called Nunavik, to an Inuk mother and a father who was a manager of the local Hudson Bay Company post, she said on Tuesday.
Her Inuk name is Ningiukudluk.
“Part of my cultural tradition, as an Inuk, are the strong bonds that are created across the generations. My grandmother Jeannie and my mother Nancy were my teachers and mentors, and these influences continue today,” Simon said in her remarks.
“They both instilled in me a boundless energy for learning, self-improvement and helping my community. They also taught me to always be proud of who I am and to keep my mind open to other points of view.”
The role of the governor general is to act as the Crown’s representative in Canada.
The role carries important parliamentary responsibilities including summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament. The governor general also sets out the government’s program by reading the Speech from the Throne and giving royal assent, which brings parliamentary bills into law.
The governor general is also Canada’s commander-in-chief. He or she visits military bases and honours Canadian military personnel on behalf of the Queen. As well, the role carries ceremonial duties such as promoting a sense of identity, recognizing the achievements of outstanding Canadians, receiving foreign dignitaries, and travelling overseas as the representative of Canada.
It is not political in nature, which Simon said she understands.
At the same time, she added there are “very important responsibilities” in the role and she believes she can help to bring people together as the country works toward reconciliation.
“When I was asked whether I would take on this important role, I was very excited and felt this was a position that would help Canadians together with Indigenous peoples working together,” she said when asked whether she felt there was any conflict in representing the Crown as an Indigenous person.
“I think if people understand each other in this way and respect each other, then this is what we call reconciliation. … The past is something that we have to come to terms with but I am going to look forward to ensure Canadians together will build a better Canada, and I think that is my important role.”
Simon then shared her thoughts on what will come next.
“My vision is to work in a way that allows for the freedom of people to express who they are, and to build a Canada that is working together, not against each other,” she said.
“I see a very bright future.”
Simon’s appointment comes at a time when the country is reckoning with the horrific realities of the residential school program, which was run by the federal government and Christian churches as a systemic effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples.
Thousands of children were forcibly taken from their families and communities, and forced to attend the schools. Many suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the traumatic effects of which continue to be suffered by Indigenous communities and families.
Hundreds of unmarked graves have been located at the sites of at least two former residential schools in recent weeks, prompting an outpouring of grief and anger as the country works to come to terms with the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami praised the appointment of Simon.
“ITK extends its deepest congratulations to Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General!” the organization wrote. ” Mary has served Inuit and Canada in many distinguished roles, including as President of ITK. We wish her extraordinary success in her role at this critical time in our history.”
The Inuit Circumpolar Council, of which Simon is a former president, also described the move as “a major step forward in relations between the Crown and Indigenous Peoples domestically, and globally.”
ICC Canada president Monica Ell-Kanayuk described Simon as “instrumental in the development of key policies that helped shape the modern Arctic” and said she “has experience acting on behalf of the Crown — and understands the challenges faced by Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, offered his congratulations as well.
“Mary is a diplomat, advocate, and a strong Inuk Woman,” he tweeted. “I look forward to working with her as the Crown’s representative in Canada.”
The Native Women’s Association of Canada praised Simon as an “excellent” choice, adding the group was “proud” to see an Indigenous woman serving as Canada’s head of state.
The organization noted though that there remain systemic challenges for the role.
“We must point out, however, that Ms. Simon is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance,” the advocacy group said in a statement.
“To achieve true reconciliation, the federal government must re-examine its appointments of Ministers to lead departments that have a profound effect on Indigenous lives – the departments of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services.
“It is time that those two Ministries are led by Indigenous people.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole congratulated Simon on the appointment.
“I would like to congratulate Mary Simon on her appointment as our country’s first Indigenous Governor General. This is an important day for both our country as a whole and particularly Indigenous peoples,” O’Toole said in a statement.
“The role of Governor General is important in unifying our country and bringing Canadians together. I wish her well in this role.”
Former governor general Michaëlle Jean described Simon as “making history.”
“A remarkable Inuk Canadian from Nunavik (Quebec) former journalist and diplomat, becomes the first Indigenous de facto Head of State of Canada, making history,” Jean tweeted.
“My heart goes to you Mary!”
Simon worked for CBC’s northern service in the 1970s.
With a file from The Canadian Press.