The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has announced it is investigating the process for nominating governors-general in Canada. This comes, we are told, after the office received “hundreds of complaints” from people upset that the latest nominee, Mary Simon, is not fluent in French.
That there would be some, especially in Quebec, who resented the fact Ms. Simon, an Inuk and the first Indigenous person to be nominated for the position, did not speak one of Canada’s two official languages was a given. The fact we are now going to dignify their grievance with a formal investigation is insulting.
Ms. Simon is the governor-general this country needs right now. Full stop.
It’s unfortunate it took a crisis for the federal government to finally appoint someone to Rideau Hall that represented Indigenous peoples in this country. You know, those who were here long before us and who paid a grave price when white European settlers moved in on their territories. Efforts by these same settlers over the years to “civilize” and “assimilate” the “savages” whose land they were taking did not go well.
And Indigenous people in Canada are still paying the price.
Ms. Simon, you’ll recall, was nominated in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who died prematurely while attending residential schools. The discoveries touched off a fresh wave of trauma for both residential-school survivors and their kin who have had to deal with the multigenerational damage the system caused – and continues to cause to this day.
Ms. Simon represents hope – hope that perhaps meaningful reconciliation is indeed possible one day. While the job she will be taking is mostly a symbolic one, her nomination is important. Since its inception, the governor-general’s position has been filled mostly with white elites.
Critics say that by appointing someone who does not speak French, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is establishing a precedent. Perhaps. Or maybe all he’s done is establish an exception to the rule.
Maybe if you speak Inuktitut, as Ms. Simon does, that should count for something. Maybe if you speak one of the country’s first languages, you should not have to learn two others – French and English – to qualify for such federal appointments. Maybe nothing should actually top being fluent in an Indigenous language.
Which is why I find an investigation into the nomination process used to select Ms. Simon so distasteful – so colonialist. That the anger toward her nomination comes mostly from Quebec is both surprising and not surprising.
I mean, francophones in Quebec know what being part of a linguistic minority feels like. Meanwhile, there are 11 Indigenous nations in the province and nine languages still active among those groups. I don’t see anyone in the provincial legislature fighting for their survival.
In fact, Quebec’s Bill 96, which toughens old language laws, is seen as another assault on Anglo institutions in the province. But by all means, let’s investigate the nomination of a distinguished Quebecker, someone who was made an Officer of l’Ordre national du Quebec – the highest distinction awarded by the government.
And let’s not forget that Ms. Simon, by being educated in a federal day school in Nunavik, was denied the opportunity to learn French. To admonish her, or disqualify her from being governor-general because she didn’t learn French in the intervening years, is absurd.
How about we make learning one of Canada’s Indigenous languages a prerequisite for federal appointments, and see how people like that?
I’m also surprised there would be such animus incited by the appointment to a position that many in Quebec have regularly dismissed as a meaningless colonial institution. Suddenly, it’s become very important.
Ms. Simon has pledged to learn as much French as she can, through tutoring and study. At age 73, she faces a tall task, but I have little doubt that she will pick up enough of the language to read it and be, if not fully conversant, at least able to get by in settings where it may be required (including awards ceremonies and greeting lines, among other duties).
I’m not sure how extensive the investigation being conducted by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages will be – or what investigators expect to find.
Perhaps, normal considerations and protocols were tossed aside by the Prime Minister’s Office. I’m sure the PMO could have easily come up with a dozen worthy candidates who were bilingual in Canada’s “two official languages,” but none would have been right for the moment in which we find ourselves.
Ms. Simon is – whether she can speak French or not.
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