The West Block – Episode 10, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – January 2, 2022 – Jan 2, 2022

Episode 10, Season 11
Sunday, January 2, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada

Location: Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: The discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in the B.C. interior led to a countrywide awakening.

When the prime minister announced Canada’s new governor general last summer, many saw it as a significant step forward on the path to reconciliation: an Indigenous woman as the Queen’s representative in Canada.

Mary Simon, Governor General: [Inuktitut language spoken]
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Mercedes Stephenson: On this special edition of The West Block, we reflect on Canada’s difficult past and the promise of a better future: one-on-one with Canada’s 30th Governor General Mary Simon.

Growing up on the shores of Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, Simon was forced to attend a federal day school, forbidden to speak her own language. Decades later, she found her voice as a broadcaster with the CBC then worked for multiple organizations representing Inuit in Canada. It was in that role that Simon attended constitutional talks, hosted by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1984, where she quickly made her mark, challenging the prime minister.

Mary Simon, Governor General: “Everybody’s gonna to shake their head and they’re gonna to say, ‘Well, we spent way too much time on the equality clause,’ and yet we’re talking about a fundamental right.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And Simon says she will continue to advance the interests of Inuit and Indigenous peoples in this country, as well as all Canadians as Canada’s governor general.

Your Excellency, thank you so much for making time for us today, to sit down and have a chance to get to know you a little bit. Canadians have watched with great excitement and anticipation as you assumed the role of governor general. They’re still getting to know you. We’re still fresh into your mandate, who do you see yourself as?

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Mary Simon, Governor General: First and foremost, I’m a northerner, a person from the Arctic from my Inuit culture, and I grew up in that environment and it lives with me today. So, I’m first and foremost an Inuk and also a Canadian so I’m really excited to be in this position as well. And I live in two worlds: I live my culture and my identity up north when I’m up there, and down here I live like every Canadian. So, it’s an exciting time and I’m really looking forward to the work that is before me over the next few years.

Mercedes Stephenson: If you were to tell Canadians a story about a part of your life that you feel really represents your experiences and who you are and who you’ve become as a person, what would that story be?

Mary Simon, Governor General Minister: Well, it would begin with my childhood, because I’m grounded in my culture and my language—grew up in my mother’s culture. My father was a non-native, but he went up to the Arctic when he was very young and learnt the language and spoke it fluently. So we all spoke Inuktitut at home and English became my second language basically as I grew up and through school. So I am first and foremost a northerner.

But secondly, I was taught by parents to live in both worlds as a non-Aboriginal person or Indigenous person, how people live very differently as let’s say, an Indigenous person does in the north and an Inuk person. And I’ve learnt over the years that the values of both cultures is equally important and one does not favour the other, and I have full respect for both my parents who come from different cultures, and also my grandmother who also a unilingual woman from the Inuit culture. And she really taught us our way of life in the north, the cultural identity of our people and all the old stories, the legends that come through in our culture, she used to tell us all those over a very warm woodstove blaring and she would be sitting there telling us legends and so on. So it’s been a really grounding experience for me. In fact, I have done a lot of negotiations over the years and when I sit in a big boardroom in southern Canada negotiating, I often think back to the communities that I represented in those days and it helps me realize that we are, as Inuit, really trying to become equal partners in a Canadian society, without losing our identity and our culture because colonialism and the colonization of our people really did strip of us of our rights and our identity for quite a long time. But over the years, we have brought that back and now we are really working to build our own societies back into a much stronger society and to be partners in the economic evolution of our country to be able to have job opportunities as others do and find a way to make decisions for ourselves and for our community. So, this is something that I was working on before I became governor general and I really am grateful to have the opportunity to represent all Canadians, not just my own Indigenous background but I always say that I am an Indigenous person that has been appointed as a governor general, but I am the governor general for all Canadians. So, I always want to say that out loud so that people realize that I’m not just in this for Indigenous people. I’m in this for all Canadians, including Indigenous Canadians.

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Mercedes Stephenson: The Crown has a very heavy and at times, very dark history with Indigenous Canadians. When you were asked to be the governor general, the representative of the Crown here in Canada, what went through your mind?

Mary Simon, Governor General: The relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people is something that is very sacred. We continue to build our relationship with Canada through Crown-Indigenous relations within the federal system, and when I think back on when I was growing up, my grandmother used to show us a picture of the Queen because they revered the Queen up in the Arctic. All communities revered the Queen. And to this day, we still value our relationship with the Queen and as much as things historically have had bad history, I think today when you look at the discussions that are going on right now between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, we are trying to build that relationship in a way that will be fruitful for us as well as other Canadians. So it’s good to move on, like we don’t ever want to repeat history again. But we are looking forward in a way that will, I think, allow our societies together as Canadians, to be able to work together in a much better way, more respectful way and to be able to understand one another more. And this is the work that I’m going to be doing over the next few years.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, we’ll have more of my conversation with the Governor General Mary Simon right after this.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Last year’s discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops shone light on the dark chapters of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

First Nations across the country began their own searches, including Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, where 751 unmarked graves were found.

Chief Cadmus Delorme, Cowessess First Nation: “We all must put down our ignorance and accidental racism, of not addressing the truth that this country has with Indigenous people. We are not asking for pity, but we are asking for understanding.”

Mercedes Stephenson: In the second part of my interview with Governor General Mary Simon, we reflect on the inequities still facing Indigenous youth and the road that all Canadians must walk towards reconciliation.

What does that work look like to you, to be able to elevate that reconciliation process as the governor general?

Mary Simon, Governor General: Reconciliation is a Canadian issue not just an Indigenous issue. It’s a relationship that we need to kind of look at and see how we can move forward in a way that allows us to build a much better understanding of one another. It’s a conversation that needs to take place across the country between all Canadians, but since the residential school era was brought to the forefront by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work, and the hearings that were held across Canada with former students of residential schools, Canadians have started to realize that this dark history actually does exist in a real sense. There were lots of stories told in the past, but it wasn’t an obvious thing to many Canadians that these schools existed in Canada and that the trauma and the behaviour of the system itself and the abuse that took place existed in our own backyard. But ever since the former students started to speak out and then as a result of that the court action and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and then recently, the unmarked graves of former residential school children was brought into the limelight, Canadians have really started to see that this is for real, like this really happened in Canada and that we must address it. So addressing it has many levels. It has relationship with the government that needs to be addressed, the actions that are required to address the wrongs of the past.

There’s also the relationship building that has to occur between people. Individuals and other cultures and other societies have to build a better relationship, a better understanding, have more respect for each other. You know it’s going to take many conversations, many difficult conversations as we all know hard things that happen are hard to do and we have hard things to do. And part of that is to really understand not why it happened, but what it did to Indigenous people in the process of sending students to residential schools that were not sent by parents or grandparents. They were taken to school, taken by authorities to go to residential school. And in those situations, a lot of trauma took place not just the students themselves, but the families as well. And you often hear about intergenerational trauma, that is really part of the whole thing. But I want Canadians to know that it’s not just about Indigenous people. Indigenous people are saying to Canadians we need to resolve what’s been going on and we need to move forward and we need to do this together.

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Mercedes Stephenson: There’s this healing from the past, but there is also the ongoing inequality. And I think about Indigenous advocates like Cindy Blackstock or Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, talking about the children coming down to go to school, not being able to go to school, especially up north in their own communities even still. And I know that for you, education and youth and reconciliation are all critical issues. How significant and serious is this educational inequality that still exists for many Indigenous children?

Mary Simon, Governor General: It’s very serious. When you think of the population of Indigenous people, even just in the north, over 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 25 or 30 and that’s a huge part of the population that is going to mature and grow up. And right now, even though we have taken over a lot of educational responsibilities, there’s still a lot of inequality based on resourcing of curriculum development, resourcing of opportunities within the smaller communities. So post-secondary education means that you have to—like other cultures as well—you have to move away from home, although down here you have the opportunity to stay home or to go away. Up north or in the remote areas, you don’t have that choice. If you want to go to post-secondary education, you have to move away. And Indigenous people are a very close-knit family and it’s difficult for people to move away, especially when young people have families when they are quite young and want to further their education, it complicates things even further. So these are things that I think can be resolved, and we hope that one day we will have a university in the Arctic as an example. We’d like to see more Indigenous grounded universities that welcome Indigenous youth and students into a new setting. And all this will help in terms of getting that equality up to par, a big part of that is also in terms of curriculum. Curriculum development in the culture and the identity of the people is not well-developed and more and more of that has to happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll be right back with the final part of my conversation with Governor General Mary Simon right after this.

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Mercedes Stephenson: In the final part of my interview with Governor General Mary Simon, we discuss her concerns over the state of mental health supports in this country and how she hopes to unify Canadians in her role as governor general.

Mental health and especially mental health with you, I know is something you’ve spoken about passionately. It’s a big issue everywhere in Canada right now. It’s an especially big issue in many Indigenous communities and up north. You obviously have your finger on the pulse of this. What is the situation right now in terms of that mental health crisis that is going on?

Mary Simon, Governor General: Since the pandemic started two years’ ago now, the level of mental health issues has increased. There has been a rise in a lot of different situations, even in abuse in homes has increased and therefore, the pandemic has had a big impact on people’s mental health. But setting aside the pandemic for a moment, the conditions that communities live in, if you look at the Indigenous communities and I would imagine because Canada is such a big country that there are also people that are also in difficult situations but we don’t hear about them as much, but in smaller communities and in remote communities, suicide is a big problem. The hopelessness that youth, I think, feel about their own future, has an impact. There’s a lot of trauma still being experienced from parents that went to residential school and have carried that trauma with them and as a result of that, they experience real difficulties in life in terms of being abusive because they were abused, you know, psychologists and psychiatrists say that abused people become abusers as well. The fact that this suicide issue has not been decreased, it has not decreased, is a big concern. I think that we don’t provide enough services to people. When people are in a difficult situation mentally, a lot of people require strong support. You need doctor’s prognosis. You need counsellors. You need psychologists. You need many different types of mental health workers to be able to support individuals that are in crisis. We don’t have that service in a lot of the remote communities. And even in southern Canada, I’m told repeatedly that the services are lacking greatly in terms of mental health. So as a country, we have put a lot of emphasis on physical health and we’re able to get the kind of treatment we need in terms of our physical wellbeing, but in terms of our mental health it’s very much on a much lower standard of health care and we need to address that.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re a very wise person with a lot of very different experiences and with this incredible ability to see different cultures, different perspectives. We look at the world and we look at Canada today and it often feels like it’s divided, like it’s polarized and people look to the governor general as a unifying force. What is your message to Canadians?

Mary Simon, Governor General: I hope to be a unifying force and I will work every day to work in that way. We need to have a conversation in Canada about our country. How do we build a better country for our future generations? And that conversation can start with me. Reconciliation is a lifelong journey. It’s not something that ends. You know, it’s not a project. It’s not something that gets completed. It evolves in different ways and we need to understand that reconciliation is a lifelong journey and we need to work at it both individually and collectively together. And if we can do that, I think that there will be a much better understanding of who we are in this country. And hopefully by doing that, we will give each other better opportunities, both in terms of our place in Canada, to have respect, to have the kind of recognition as a people without being impacted negatively, and to have that conversation with other diverse groups. We are very multicultural. We are a very diverse country and Indigenous people who are the first peoples of this land are also part of that, are an integral part of this.

Mercedes Stephenson: If your grandmother was here sitting with us today, what do you think she’d say?

Mary Simon, Governor General: She would say a word, it’s [Inuktitut language spoken] and it means commitment, let’s keep going. Don’t give up. And that was always a word that we used in our family, but it’s also used every day in my culture, in the Inuit culture and it’s a word that has a lot of deep meaning. And I can never find the right one word, English word that contains the meaning of that word in our language. So that’s what my grandmother would probably say to me: keep going. You have a commitment. Don’t give up.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Your Excellency, thank you so much for joining us today and for your time and your wisdom.

Mary Simon, Governor General: Well thank you for inviting me to be on your show, I really enjoyed it.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s our honour and our pleasure.

That’s it for The West Block this week. I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Happy New Year!


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