Mary Simon says she is honoured, humbled and ready to be the first Indigenous person to serve as the Queen’s federal representative in Canada.
Her official installation as Governor-General took place in the Senate on Monday, just short of three weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced her appointment. Because of the pandemic, the ceremony included only a limited number of participants.
During a speech delivered in Inuktitut, English and French, Ms. Simon said she has been deeply touched by the words of Canadians who have reached out to her since hearing the news of her appointment.
“I have heard from Canadians who describe a renewed sense of possibility for our country and hope that I can bring people together,” Ms. Simon said.
“I have heard from Canadians who have challenged me to bring a new and renewed purpose to the office of the governor-general to help Canadians deal with the issues we are facing.”
Ms. Simon, who is Inuk, said it is her view that reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is a “way of life” that requires work every day. She also said the recent revelations about unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools have horrified her, just as they have many other Canadians.
Ms. Simon, 73, called curbing the destruction of nature and fighting climate change the challenges of our time. She pointed to warming in the Arctic as evidence of this, as well as the recent wave of forest fires, prolonged droughts and record heat.
She promised to meet Canadians in all provinces and territories, in order to learn what problems they are facing.
Mr. Trudeau said that Ms. Simon’s vision of a stronger Canada for everyone is needed in a moment when Canada must rebuild from the pandemic, fight the climate crisis and advance the cause of reconciliation.
Governors-general represent the Queen, who is Canada’s head of state. They also carry out some key ceremonial functions to keep the constitutional monarchy running. These duties include dissolving Parliament. The prime minister traditionally visits the governor-general at Rideau Hall and submits what is called an instrument of advice, which recommends the dissolution of Parliament and paves the way for a general election.
The governor-general has other important responsibilities, including serving as commander-in-chief of the military and representing Canada at home and abroad.
Mark Walters, a constitutional law expert and the dean of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, said in an interview that having an Indigenous person serve as governor-general opens up opportunities “for a significant conversation about what reconciliation means today in Canada.”
“It’s a possibility that our understanding of the office may shift a little bit, or significantly, as the role is reinterpreted by somebody who has an Indigenous perspective,” Mr. Walters said.
Before assuming the role of governor-general, Ms. Simon had a long career in Indigenous policy-making and advocacy for Indigenous rights. In the early 1980s, she worked on the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.
She had a senior role in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and she represented Inuit in the government’s 2008 residential schools apology. She was also president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a non-profit group representing more than 65,000 Inuit in Canada, beginning in 2006.
Ms. Simon grew up in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, where she was raised according to Inuit traditions, including living off the land with sled dogs. After the sixth grade, she split her time between being home-schooled in the town of Kuujjuaq and going to school in Colorado, where her paternal grandparents lived.
Ms. Simon worked for the CBC’s Northern Service as a producer and announcer in the early 1970s. She is married to former CBC journalist Whit Fraser and is a mother of three children.
She is bilingual in English and Inuktitut, and is working to learn French. She said she was denied the chance to learn French during her time in the federal government’s day schools for Indigenous children.
Ms. Simon said during her address on Monday that she has heard from Canadians who support her commitment to learn French, and that some have even offered to assist her in her training. She plans to conduct the business of the governor-general in both of Canada’s official languages, and also in Inuktitut.
Some, including Quebec Senator Claude Carignan, have expressed concern about Ms. Simon’s abilities in French. When Ms. Simon’s appointment was announced, Mr. Carignan questioned the propriety of the move.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages said it has received 1,051 complaints, as of Monday, related to the fact that Ms. Simon does not speak French. The office confirmed that Commissioner Raymond Théberge has launched an investigation into the matter.
In an interview on Monday, Natan Obed, the president of the ITK, said that Inuit have full and deep respect for the English and French languages in Canada. He said it is time to chart a path toward respect for Indigenous languages as well.
“The fact that we have an incredibly accomplished, bilingual Governor-General who has pledged to become trilingual, and can speak a founding language in this country and an official language in this country, should suffice,” he said. “We want to be on this path of reconciliation together, but there has to be a respect for the languages that are the founding languages in this country.”
Mr. Obed said he believes Ms. Simon and the staff at Rideau Hall will ensure she can respectfully engage with all Canadians.
“Mary Simon is an accomplished Canadian,” he said, adding that she is well deserving of her new role. “The fact that she is from our Inuit community makes it even more special.”
The governor-general’s role has been vacant since the resignation in January of Julie Payette, who stepped down amid allegations that she behaved aggressively toward staff members and publicly humiliated them. The alleged conduct was documented in an independent workplace review.
Ms. Simon said Monday she is fully committed to setting and maintaining the highest possible standard of work and ethics in all her duties.
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