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Lawrence Martin

An aboriginal G-G would bring glorious closure to painful history Add to ...

The recent Throne Speech contained a barely noticed reference to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, sets out the collective and individual rights of indigenous peoples, prohibiting discrimination against them.

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The Harper government initially refused to sign the declaration. It was one of only a few holdouts, saying the proclamation contained elements that were incompatible with Canada's constitutional framework. But the Throne Speech surprisingly revealed a change of mind. Now the Conservatives want to be a signatory.

A possible reason for this - or so it's hoped in the aboriginal community - is a future appointment, one that would make history. There's a good chance the Prime Minister will appoint the first aboriginal Canadian to the post of Governor-General. Signing the rights declaration would be a prelude, as it would be incongruous not to be on board in making such an appointment.

The aboriginal who's being talked about as a possible successor to Michaëlle Jean is Inuit leader Mary Simon, who worked on drafting the UN declaration.

If, in fact, Stephen Harper is intent on such a change at Rideau Hall, credit is due. It's high time - after 143 years! - that a representative of the first peoples was given the job. The office is a powerful symbol of inclusiveness - and for a populace as marginalized as the aboriginals, what better measure of redress.

The new G-G won't be appointed for a few months, but given the importance of this position during a minority government, debate lines should open up. Like the current G-G, the new one could well be called on to make a critical decision affecting the standing of the government.

The respected and accomplished Ms. Simon, who hails from Nunavik in northern Quebec, has much to recommend her. She was our ambassador to Denmark, ambassador for circumpolar affairs, chancellor of Trent University, and a negotiator for native peoples during the patriation of the Constitution.

Her major drawback is her weakness in the French language. Since her name was first mentioned last fall in connection with the G-G post, she has been spending a lot of time working on her French. Though it's not up to par, it can't be any worse than that of Ray Hnatyshyn, who served as G-G from 1990 to 1995.

Ms. Simon's appointment would mean that three consecutive women would have held the position, but that hardly begins to make up for the couple of dozen in succession from the other gender. Her appointment would also mean two in a row from Quebec, which is unusual. But she would be viewed as an aboriginal G-G, not a francophone one.

For Mr. Harper, her appointment would have much to recommend it. Highlighting Canada's northern identity has become a focus of his stewardship. What better way to further this than with a G-G from the Far North? The plight of the first peoples has found a way to his conscience, prime testimony being his government's 2008 apology to the victims of residential school abuse. Choosing an aboriginal as G-G would enhance his credibility with minorities.

There will be other pressures. British Columbia, for example, has never had a G-G since joining Confederation in 1871, and Mr. Harper, after all, is from Western Canada. Also, after a series of liberally minded occupiers of the office, there'll be pressure on the Prime Minister to go with someone with Conservative credentials. Before long, he may wish to force an election by asking the G-G for a dissolution of Parliament, again breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of his fixed-date election law. It would be handy for him to have a partisan as the Queen's representative.

But here's betting he doesn't go that route.

Michaëlle Jean, who has served with class and distinction, is due to leave the office in September, but there's speculation the changeover may come during the Queen's visit to Canada in July. What a moment that could be, what a glorious closure to the long lacerated history between the Crown and this country's native peoples if that moment were chosen to name Mary Simon as the new Governor-General.

 

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