Mary Simon is, in most respects, superbly qualified to be Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general. But this is also the most controversial appointment to the vice-regal role in this country’s history, because she does not speak French well.
“I am deeply committed to continuing my French-language studies and plan to conduct the business of the governor-general in both of Canada’s official languages,” Ms. Simon said Tuesday.
But Ms. Simon is in her 70s, and will be taking on a role that requires, at times, long hours and extensive travel. With such a demanding schedule, it will be difficult to become fluent in French, even with the very best tutors.
It is simply extraordinary that this, of all federal governments – the government that introduced legislation that strengthens the bilingualism requirements of Supreme Court judges – should choose a governor-general who is not fully conversant in French.
Is there now to be a new rule: that senior officials within the Canadian government must be able to speak either both official languages, or one official language plus an Indigenous language?
More than a decade ago, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was seeking a replacement for then-governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, Ms. Simon’s name was spoken of. But everyone assumed that the representative of the head of state in Canada, like the prime minister, like the chief justice, like the senior ranks of the public service, simply must be bilingual.
Imagine a governor-general who could not speak English fluently. How is the inability to speak French fluently any different?
That said, the people of Quebec and francophones across Canada may be willing to accept what would otherwise be an unconscionable affront. We are at a crossroads in the life of our country. The discovery of many hundreds of bodies buried in unmarked graves at former residential schools and the federal government’s decision to incorporate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law are bound to lead to fundamental changes in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. There is good reason for this Liberal government to decide that the next governor-general simply must be First Nation, Métis or Inuit.
And maybe the time has come to question the imperative of bilingualism within the senior ranks of the federal public service – a requirement that shuts out the great majority of Canadians from those positions. If so, this is one heck of a way to launch the conversation.
There is another issue with this appointment. Five of the last eight governors-general will have worked at one point in their lives for the CBC: Ms. Simon, Michaëlle Jean, Ms. Clarkson, Roméo LeBlanc and Jeanne Sauvé. This will grate on those who resent what they see as the close association of the public broadcaster with Liberal governments.
Ms. Simon is in all other respects perfectly suited for the role. She served two terms as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents more than 65,000 Inuit, and was Canada’s ambassador for circumpolar affairs, to name just two of her long list of accomplishments.
A number of years ago, the two of us were seated together at a conference, and had a long talk about Indigenous education. Ms. Simon spoke with deep knowledge and conviction of the need for a properly funded Indigenous education system, with a curriculum that meets the highest standards, that is tailored to Indigenous cultures and that is under full Indigenous control.
First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadians will have a powerful, committed voice at Rideau Hall, though the Native Women’s Association of Canada, while praising the appointment, added: “We must point out, however, that Ms. Simon is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a deeply controversial choice. He knew it would be controversial when he made it. Will Ms. Simon’s tenure help to heal divisions of race and language in the country, or worsen it?
For the sake of the nation, we wish her well.