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Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, speaks in Ottawa, on July 7, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

With a growing sentiment that Julie Payette’s abrupt departure from Rideau Hall provides an opportunity for Canada to have its first Indigenous governor general, Perry Bellegarde laughs when asked if he’s been taking French lessons.

“Mais oui,” Bellegarde said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press – “Yes.”

Bellegarde, who is not seeking re-election as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations next July, said he has not been formally approached by “any person in decision-making authority” regarding the job and that he is focused on his current one till it’s done.

That out of the way, Bellegarde expressed enthusiasm for the idea of having a First Nations person named to be the Queen’s representative in Canada – a post suddenly vacated last week when Payette stepped down over a scathing review of the work environment she presided over at Rideau Hall.

“I think it is time that Canada has its first Indigenous governor-general,” he said.

“I’ve always said that we need to get First Nations people into the highest levels of decision-making authority, power and influence and the governor-general, to me, is one of the highest.”

Bellegarde said it would send a strong message to young people who would see themselves reflected at the highest levels in Canada – something he said should also happen at the Supreme Court – and be a move toward reconciliation.

“It’s about hope,” he said. “All Canadians, including First Nations people, should see themselves as part of this great country.”

Chief Bobby Cameron, a regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations representing Saskatchewan, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the “perfect opportunity.”

“Do it. Stop talking about it. Stop talking about reconciliation and all these other good words,” said Cameron. “Now is the time for action. And if you can do that, then you have done something positive in the direction of reconciliation.”

Cameron said that with all due respect to Metis and Inuit people, the governor-general should be a First Nations person because they are the only Indigenous group subject to treaty rights. He said that the governor-general – a position that predates Canada’s Confederation – was meant to act as the Crown’s spokesperson in treaty relations and that purpose has been lost.

“That’s why it needs to be a First Nation person, one that’s knowledgeable, educated, and a fluent language speaker because language is an inherent right for First Nation people,” said Cameron, who added that housing rights are also a concern.

Michele Audette, who was a commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said appointing an Indigenous person as governor-general would be a “historic” move.

She also said that whoever ends up being named, no matter their background, must acknowledge Canada’s colonial history.

“We have to do something now and for tomorrow that is better than what happened to our people a long time ago and is still happening.”

National Chief Elmer St. Pierre of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents Metis, off-reserve status and non-status Indigenous people, said an Indigenous governor-general will need a strong mandate to heal the damage done by policies like the Indian Act and residential schools, where thousands of children suffered abuse and death after they were forcibly removed from their families and communities.

“The con side would be, have they already got somebody in mind? A hand-picked person who’s just going to be a yes man for the government.”

St. Pierre said he would like the governor-general to invite broader representation of Indigenous people to important policy conversations, including his own group – which represents different people from the Assembly of First Nations.

“If we end up with a governor-general who is an Aboriginal person I’d like to see that person make sure that every Aboriginal organization get invited to all the important tables,” said St. Pierre.

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said several Indigenous men have represented the Crown at the provincial level, starting in 1974 when Ralph G. Steinhauer became Alberta’s lieutenant-governor.

James Bartleman became Ontario’s lieutenant-governor in 2002, Steven Point was named British Columbia’s lieutenant-governor in 2007, and Russell Mirasty has been Saskatchewan’s lieutenant-governor since he was appointed in 2019.

Whitman said an Indigenous woman would be a good choice.

“I do work with women, girls, and our 2SLGBTQQIA community and if a woman was (governor-general) I would see a really strong pull for those groups,” she said.

Historian Nathan Tidridge, who has written about reconciliation and the Crown’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, said that although the governor-general’s role has lost some of its powers, it has the unique ability to bring together all levels of government as well as Indigenous leaders when trying to mend treaty relations.

“I don’t know that if the non-Indigenous side has the capacity to (heal the nation-to-nation relationship) right now because of a lack of education,” said Tidridge.

Bellegarde said some people say the governor-general has only a ceremonial role but that role is important because First Nations have special treaty relationship with the Crown that was done through ceremony.

“There’s a sacredness to that agreement, sacredness to that contract,” he said.

“It’s almost like we’re building a relationship.”

Editor’s note: (Jan. 29, 2021): An earlier version misquoted Perry Bellegarde as saying 'Maybe' upon being asked if he was taking French lessons. In fact, he said 'Mais oui.'

The resignation of Governor-General Julie Payette leaves a vacuum with a possible election on the horizon. John Ibbitson says Ms. Payette's reported behaviour meant she had to go, and now Prime Minister Trudeau has to restore confidence in the vice-regal role with his next choice of governor-general.

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