When Governor-General Mary Simon sat down with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on Tuesday, the 74-year-old Canadian Inuk woman and the 65-year-old German man had one difficult topic they both wanted to discuss: how, as the occupant of your country’s highest office, do you express and atone for the darkest parts of your country’s recent history?
“It’s a common theme that he and I both share,” Ms. Simon told me when we met in Frankfurt on Thursday, in her first press interview as Governor-General. “We need to tell the truth about the past … the hard truth and the hard things that we have to overcome as part of reconciliation. He is very involved in carrying that out in Germany, and I as a Governor-General have decided that I’ll be devoting a lot of time to it during my term.”
In his four years as President of Germany, Mr. Steinmeier has made his country’s most unforgivable crime an inescapable theme of his presidency. German heads of state since the 1980s have publicly acknowledged their country’s lasting responsibility for the Nazi regime’s mechanized murder of European Jews, but Mr. Steinmeier has made it a major theme, travelling to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps and to Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial with Holocaust victims.
Ms. Simon was appointed Governor-General this summer in a dark and shame-tinged moment for Canadians. The discovery of the bones of hundreds of children in the yards of residential schools had given many a poignant sense of the scale of Canada’s atrocities and abuses against First Nations and Inuit. Ms. Simon knew this unfinished business would have to be central to her office.
But there are only so many lessons she can take from her German counterpart. By nature of her own background growing up in an Inuit community hurt by Canada’s ill-considered policies, she can’t hew to a narrative of perpetrator guilt.
“I’m not apologetic, because I’m Indigenous. And … we have agreed that the Canadian government, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation process, … is committed to addressing the wrongs of the past and prepared to start working through me on how to engage Canadians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in a way that will bring about a better relationship, that will bring about respect and dignity for those that have been wronged,” she says.
She does not see the governor-general as a ceremonial, largely symbolic role, and does not plan to use the office that way.
“Well, that’s part of my role as the [de facto] head of state,” she says. “You know I get an opportunity to discuss with the government about how things are going … to talk to leaders of our country. So I see my role as being someone that will give people an opportunity to talk about how we move forward in our country as partners between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous. It is not an Indigenous issue: It’s a Canadian issue.”
(Ms. Simon referred to herself as “head of state” four times in our interview – a self-description that more than one previous governor-general and some scholars have said is legitimate. But later that day her staff asked that I change these references to, “I fulfil the role of head of state,” a technically more precise phrase.)
She does not see her Inuk identity and her role as the Queen’s representative as anomalous. Her formidable career has been spent bridging those worlds – as leader of the national Inuit organization, twice as a Canadian ambassador, and as one of the creators of the Arctic Council and the self-governed territory of Nunavut. This office is just another tool for building such bridges.
“It’s not difficult,” she says, “because Inuit have always said that we are first Inuit and then Canadians. So we embrace being Canadian – very much so. And that has always been the case. Being the first Indigenous governor-general, and also being the governor-general for all Canadians, is something that has no conflict within me.”
Previous governors-general, from Ray Hnatyshyn to Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, have used their immigrant backgrounds and minority identities to project a more diverse, post-colonial vision of Canada to the world. But in her decision to accept the appointment in July, Ms. Simon chose to draw on a different, more active aspect of her identity – that of a career bridge-builder and problem-solver.
“Because we are going through such a difficult period in terms of reconciling our past, I felt that as an Indigenous person, and as the Governor-General, I could bring that conversation much closer to home,” she says, “and be able to work both with Indigenous peoples in Canada, and with other Canadians, in a way that will allow us to examine the relationship in a non-political way and to see how we can heal and move forward on our future.
“Because I think if we partner and work together, we will have a stronger country.”
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