Prominent Inuk leader and former diplomat Mary Simon, who will officially become the head of state in a ceremony on July 26, has said she was denied the chance to learn French while in a federal day school. She speaks both English and Inuktitut, and has pledged to learn French.
Still, the complaints are pouring in, according to the commissioner of official languages.
“I have received a significant number of complaints about the appointment – close to 200 so far, which suggests to me that linguistic duality is an important value for Canadians,” Raymond Théberge said in a statement emailed to Global News on Wednesday.
“Since I am currently reviewing the complaints, my ability to comment at this time is limited.”
Théberge acknowledged that Simon’s appointment comes at an “important point in our country’s history” and that the appointment of an Indigenous governor general is “an important step towards reconciliation.”
“I believe her perspective and experience will no doubt enable her to contribute to the protection of Indigenous and minority languages across the country, which includes our official language minority communities,” he said.
But, he added, “we must not forget that our official language minority communities are becoming increasingly diverse.”
“Inclusion and respect for both official languages are far from mutually exclusive notions,” Théberge wrote.
When pressed on the issue as her appointment was announced on July 6, Simon explained that her education at a day school was the key factor preventing her from learning French.
Federal day schools operated from the 1860s to the 1990s. While they were run separately from residential schools, they were still managed by many of the same groups that ran residential schools — and have a similarly dark legacy, including allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Despite being deprived of the opportunity to learn French growing up, Simon has pledged to learn the language.
“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.
This isn’t the first time a government appointment has come under fire over language-related concerns.
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 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — boycotted the House of Commons vote confirming him as such that same year over his lack of French.
When pressed on the issue on the day of her appointment, Trudeau emphasized Simon’s commitment to learning the language.
“She was born in northern Quebec. Her mother tongue is Inuktitut. She learned a second language, English, in the day school she attended because they didn’t teach French there in the ’50s. That’s the reality,” he said, speaking in French.
“She understands the importance of being able to properly represent all Canadians, and that’s why she’s committing to take French lessons and to learn French.”
–With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly