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Mary Simon attends a news conference where she is announced as the next Governor-General of Canada in Gatineau, Que.

PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, Ont. He is the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute.

At the height of the Idle No More movement in 2013, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence asked for an audience with then governor-general David Johnston to discuss treaty obligations. She was subsequently mocked by political commentators. The governor-general, after all, was powerless to affect any real change, they said. Yet this week, some of those same voices applauded the appointment of Mary Simon, who will become Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general as a reflection of reconciliation.

It so often seems that progress in the Crown-Indigenous relationship is measured strictly in symbolism. This is not to say there isn’t some power in the appointment of an Indigenous, and specifically an Inuk, woman to the role of governor-general; there is. But it’s complicated.

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The Crown might be the most confusing concept in Canadian politics. The institution of the Crown is supposed to represent Canadians – think Crown lands, Crown attorneys or Crown wards – and when the Crown acts, it is supposed to be on behalf of Canadians and their interests. It does so, theoretically, through the executive branch of the federal government (i.e. cabinet). Some conflate the Crown with “the state,” but that’s not quite right. Rather, the state and the institutions of the state serve the Crown.

After all, Queen Elizabeth II is, as the personal embodiment of the Crown, Canada’s nominal head of state, making the Canadian Crown an individual as well as an ambiguous political concept. The position of the governor-general was created to ensure the early colony was behaving, with all policy and law flowing upward to English colonial masters to approve. This dynamic is reflected in Canada’s initial constitutional sources, with a tremendous amount of influence afforded to the governor-general, at least on paper: validating laws and dissolving Parliament, appointing judges and allocating taxes – the stuff of a steady colonial hand.

After rebellions in the 1830s in pursuit of responsible government, Canadians largely refused to revolt over the intervening years. The role of the governor-general eventually evolved into a ceremonial one, and the office now mostly defers to the prime minister of the day on the matters of substance mentioned above.

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But there’s an unanswered question in this complex formulation of the Crown: where Indigenous people fit.

While the colonial overtones don’t need to be repeated, consider that treaties were (and still are) negotiated between First Nations or Inuit and the Crown; the Supreme Court views aboriginal rights as a burden on Crown sovereignty, and there is a federal department devoted to Crown-Indigenous relations. In addition to the lands, wards and attorneys mentioned above, these images are all confrontational, the Crown existing in opposition to Indigenous people.

In fact, the Crown has shapeshifted to more effectively oppose Indigenous rights over the years. While English colonial officials initially negotiated and signed treaties, that role was passed down at Confederation to the federal cabinet, without discussion with Indigenous peoples. Many years later, the 2014 Supreme Court’s decision on Grassy Narrows First Nation v. Ontario allowed provincial Crowns to override treaties in the name of the public interest; Indigenous people were not included in the “the public.” In the 2017 Clyde River case, the court ruled that an arm’s-length regulatory body such as the National Energy Board can be “the vehicle through which the Crown acts,” and could thus do the work of treaty and aboriginal rights implementation – or not.

Readers, then, might understand why Indigenous leaders are often confused about who and what the Crown is. It is everything and everyone. It is Mary Simon.

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The incoming Queen’s representative actually helped shape discussions during Canada’s Constitutional patriation, with campaigns for Inuit and Indigenous women’s rights, and has a long record of effective diplomacy. Ms. Simon will be someone who Inuit – and Indigenous people generally – will be proud of. But simultaneously and in addition to representing the Queen, governors-general also unavoidably represent colonialism.

So could there be somewhere within this contradiction a path to resist underwriting the oppressive and oppositional nature of the Crown/Indigenous relationship?

Ms. Simon has already defied one convention – the requirement that the governor-general be bilingual in English and French, having instead led her remarks on Tuesday with Inuktut. Perhaps there will be more to come. What if she refused to sign federal bills that would harm Indigenous people, or rewrote the Speech from the Throne to commit tax dollars to return Indigenous lands to Indigenous communities? What if Ms. Simon forced legislators to pass Indigenous rights bills stalled in the Senate before agreeing to dissolve Parliament for an election, or answered the phone when the next Theresa Spence calls?

It is likely that she’d be fired. But until then – or instead – perhaps Ms. Simon will find a way to avoid the strictly symbolic, and shift by degrees who the Crown is actually accountable to.

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