Dakota Kochie is the chief of staff at the Assembly of First Nations.
After several weeks of heartache, shock and hurt following revelations of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools, as well as months of uncertainty at Rideau Hall, Indigenous peoples and all Canadians should be uplifted and encouraged by the appointment of Mary Simon as Canada’s 30th governor-general.
This appointment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make Ms. Simon the first Indigenous governor-general in Canada’s history, and sends a strong message to all Indigenous peoples that while we have a long way to go to achieve meaningful reconciliation in Canada, we are on the right path to a more inclusive and successful country for everyone. As a First Nations person myself, the significance of Ms. Simon’s appointment is not lost on me. Whether you are First Nations, Métis or Inuk, having representation at Rideau Hall is more than just symbolism, it’s progress.
Ms. Simon is a former diplomat, a former president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the largest Inuit organization in the country – and a former public servant and broadcaster. But perhaps most importantly, she is also a strong Inuk woman. Indigenous peoples have long held up women as matriarchs, viewing them as leaders among our communities and as those we turn to for direction in difficult times. Indigenous women have always been at the forefront of Indigenous activism, leadership and diplomacy. Ms. Simon is no exception.
Originally from Kangiqsualujjuaq, a village in northeastern Quebec, she learned to hunt, fish and gather food for her family. Ms. Simon has had an illustrious career at home as well as representing Canada abroad. She was a senior Inuk official during the 1982 negotiations over Canada’s Constitution. She served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs and was also ambassador to Denmark as well as chancellor at Trent University. She contributed to many boards and advisory bodies, and advocated for and negotiated the creation of the Arctic Council. She is well-liked by the international community and will serve as a symbol of Canada’s great diversity and strength.
Indigenous peoples also have a long and powerful connection to the Crown. When settlers first came to Canada, Indigenous peoples signed treaties and other agreements with the Crown to allow for peaceful co-existence and partnership. While Canada has largely not lived up to its end of these agreements, having an Indigenous person as governor-general will send a strong message to Indigenous youth that progress is possible. Ms. Simon will be a beacon of hope for many Indigenous youth who will see her in this position and think, “I can be like her too.”
Mr. Trudeau made a brave statement by appointing someone who only fluently speaks English and Inuktitut. Historically, Canada’s governor-general has had to speak and write in Canada’s official languages, English and French. But the choice is in line with the Liberal government’s historic steps in supporting Indigenous languages with Bill C-91, its $333.7-million investment in Indigenous-language revitalization, and its appointment of Canada’s first Indigenous Languages Commissioner. Every person in Canada should be encouraged by the Prime Minister’s commitment to Indigenous languages.
After hundreds of years of deliberate government policies to suppress Indigenous languages, I was nearly moved to tears when I listened to Ms. Simon begin her remarks in Inuktitut on Tuesday. The fact that the Queen’s representative in Canada speaks an Indigenous language is far more than symbolism – it’s resistance.
Ms. Simon is a strong advocate who sticks to her principles. Back in the late 1990s, when she was leading Canada’s negotiations on the establishment of the Arctic Council, she threatened to withdraw the Canadian contingent late in the process after U.S. officials had tried to diminish Indigenous peoples’ involvement in the council.
“I am very diplomatic, but in this situation the Canadian delegation was very clear: If the Indigenous peoples became only observers as suggested by the USA – and not permanent participants as agreed – Canada would walk out of the negotiations,” she said, reflecting on the events in a 2016 interview.
Her leadership and foresight likely saved the council, which has increased global co-operation in the Arctic region and ensured a global focus on climate change and biodiversity. This is the type of legacy she takes with her into the role of governor-general, and for that, all of Canada should be encouraged and proud.
We have a long way to go to achieve real and meaningful reconciliation, but I am confident that Ms. Simon will lead with her heart and promote dignity, love and a deep sense of pride in Canada.
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