Canada’s official languages watchdog is opening an investigation after receiving more than 400 complaints in nearly two weeks about the appointment of prominent Inuk leader Mary Simon as governor general.
Simon does not speak French, which is enshrined in the Official Languages Act as one of Canada’s two official languages. She has said she is committed to learning French on the job but was denied the chance to do so while attending a federal day school in her youth.
She speaks English and Inuktitut.
“The appointment of a governor general who is not fluent in both official languages has elicited many reactions across the country since her appointment was announced on July 6th,” Raymond Théberge said in a statement announcing the investigation.
He said while he understands Canada is “at a turning point” in the country’s steps towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, the number of complaints received over Simon’s lack of French continues to mount.
“I have also received a significant number of complaints on this matter—over 400 to date,” he said.
“In my opinion, this demonstrates that linguistic duality continues to be an important value for Canadians. We have analyzed the complaints received to date and have determined that they are admissible. I will therefore be investigating the matter.”
Simon is set to be sworn in as governor general on July 26.
According to Théberge, his investigation will focus on the role of the Privy Council Office in the appointment. He also said while he would be limited from commenting on the investigation as it unfolds, he wanted to use the opportunity to issue a reminder to those behind such decisions.
“Too often, I see a discourse that puts respect for diversity and inclusion on one hand, and respect for official languages on the other, as if they were mutually exclusive and could not coexist. I would like to remind decision‑makers that it is entirely possible to respect official languages while being inclusive,” he said.
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“Let’s aim to make our country a place where we don’t have to choose between respect for official languages and inclusion for all.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on July 6 that Simon will be Canada’s first Indigenous governor general. A prominent Inuk leader, Simon is also a former Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to Denmark and who played a prominent role in the creation of the Arctic Council.
But her past work in diplomacy has led to questions from some who have wondered why she appears not to have learned French throughout her professional career, which has spanned some 50 years.
“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.
Trudeau has previously argued against top-level federal appointments of people who are not bilingual in both official languages, including defending the requirement for Supreme Court of Canada justices to be fluent in English and French at the time of appointment.
As part of that, he changed the rules for appointments to the top court in 2016 to require that applicants selected must be functionally bilingual in both official languages.
He was also part of the Liberal caucus under interim leader Bob Rae in 2011 that opposed the appointment of former auditor general Michael Ferguson because he did not speak French.
Trudeau, however, said Simon should be given the chance to learn.
“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, when pressed on the matter on July 6.
“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.”