Inuk leader Mary Simon’s appointment as Canada’s next governor general was met with division this week, after she revealed that she could not speak French, one of the country’s two official languages.
“Based on my experience growing up in Quebec, I was denied the chance to learn French during my time in the federal government day schools,” she said Tuesday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the position.
Federal day schools operated from the 1860s to the 1990s separately from residential schools, but they were run by many of the same groups that ran residential schools.
Simon said she is “firmly committed to learning French,” adding that she planned to conduct official business as Governor General in English and French, as well as in her native Inuktitut language, which is one of many Indigenous languages spoken in Canada.
But her comments have ignited a fire in some Canadian francophones, for whom that is simply not enough.
“In her entire career as a diplomat for Canada, has she never felt the need?” tweeted Françoise Boivin, a former member of the House of Commons.
Political consultant Patrick Déry tweeted in French that Simon was certainly “impressive,” — “but was there not, in the whole country, only one qualified Indigenous person who would also have been able to express themselves in French?”
“I cannot imagine for a second that Mary Simon could have been appointed if she had spoken only Inuktitut and French,” another Twitter user going by the name Sylvain Lefebvre tweeted in French.
Other Canadians — including those who speak both official languages — said they aren’t bothered that Simon can’t speak French and are focusing instead on the new Governor General’s track record.
“From everything I’ve read, it’s a very good appointment,” said Patti Devine, a 58-year-old bilingual speaker living in Prince Edward Island.
“She’s a diplomat. She’s got so much lived experience. And our country is just at a crossroads now. We have to take some meaningful action for reconciliation — it’s just too bad that she doesn’t speak French.”
Ideally, Devine said she would have hoped Canada’s Governor General would speak English, French and an Indigenous language, “but that doesn’t mean that (Simon) won’t do a brilliant job and represent us well.”
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, said Simon’s lengthy list of accomplishments — including helping to negotiate key benchmarks in Indigenous rights, like the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian Constitution — have made her confident in Simon’s ability to learn French.
“(Simon) said she would learn to speak French and the woman’s a frickin’ genius, so let her learn,” she said.
Speaking French is 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.
But other experts say the focus should not be on Simon not knowing French, but on the fact that Canada’s new Governor General will be fluent in a language — Inuktitut — that has been spoken by people long before English and French arrived in Canada.
Monica Heller, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said she’s hopeful Simon’s appointment will set a new precedent where future governor generals at least “have some understanding of Indigenous languages.”
“This is Indigenous land,” she said. “We’re talking about representing the people of Canada, right? So I think Indigenous people shouldn’t be erased.”
Heller said Simon is also in a unique position to help spark conversations about how English and French became Canada’s official languages, and how they came to dominate and even erase Indigenous languages in places like residential schools.
“I think looking at her language learning and language trajectory can really be eye-opening and helpful and allow us to have discussions that maybe would be harder to have if she were perfectly trilingual,” she said.
Are the feds partly to blame?
Simon’s appointment comes at a time when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across Canada are coming to terms with many of the atrocities perpetrated against First Nations, Inuit and Metis people throughout several centuries of history.
The creation of church-run, government-funded residential schools — which aimed to assimilate Indigenous children after removing them from their families and communities — caused more pain, suffering and loss of identity, language and culture to Indigenous peoples.
Tens of thousands of Indigenous children left their families behind only to be physically, sexually and emotionally abused. Many never returned home from school.
Nakuset said many residential and day school students were forced to lose their own language and learn English — not French.
Heller said that historically, the federal government “hasn’t done a great job” of effectively promoting French and bilingualism across the country. Starting that work in earnest now, she added, could open up further discussion about how Canadians can promote Indigenous languages as well.
“It’s a complicated country, for a small population, just in terms of languages,” she said. “It’s not easy for a bureaucracy to handle, I recognize that. But we can do better.”
As for Simon, Heller said she’s hopeful the new Governor General won’t shy away from showcasing her multilingualism — even though it won’t include French right away.
“I hope Mary Simon speaks Inuktitut to us a lot,” she said.
— With files from Global’s Eric Stober and Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press