The Governor-General is a mostly symbolic position, and this time, Justin Trudeau chose to skirt existing symbols in favour of new ones.
Mary Simon was passed over for the post in the past, her name mooted but ultimately rejected because she didn’t speak French.
English and French-speaking governors-general had alternated since Canadian-born dignitaries, rather than British aristocrats, started being appointed in the 1950s. Since the 1990s, no prime minister has named someone who wasn’t bilingual. Linguistic duality is part of the symbolism.
Mr. Trudeau knew that. And he decided there was a greater imperative in a different set of symbols.
It was less than a week after a July 1 holiday that sparked debate over whether Canada Day should be celebrated, or marked in solemn remembrance, or cancelled from shame, and Ms. Simon was appointed as the first Indigenous Governor-General, taking the post expressing pride in Canada as “this wonderful country of ours.”
One could see why Mr. Trudeau would settle on Ms. Simon as the symbol for a vice-regal appointment now.
Her C.V. provides a list of reasons: an Inuk woman from the region of northern Quebec now called Nunavik, who was involved in the negotiation of the 1975 James Bay agreement, running the Makivik Corporation that managed the financial compensation, serving as Canada’s first Arctic Ambassador. But her optimism about the prospects for reconciliation, and about Canada, make her the Governor-General Mr. Trudeau needed.
This Prime Minister came to power making promises to implement all 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a largely unfulfilled pledge, and his hopeful talk of reconciliation now meets a lot of skepticism. This year’s discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools have given Canadians a stark reminder of heartbreaking reality. Yet Ms. Simon spoke about atrocities in the same sentences that expressed hope for reconciliation.
“Maybe not in my lifetime, but I see a very bright future for our children and grandchildren, if we can start to renew our relationships, at the same time respecting the human rights and the atrocities that have happened in the history of Canada,” Ms. Simon said at a news conference.
It’s hard to say whether Indigenous people will see her as playing a truly important symbolic role once she is in the post. The Native Women’s Association of Canada called her an excellent choice, but said she was still serving in a senior role in a colonial system.
Mr. Trudeau wants symbols that soothe some of the cynicism. Merle Alexander, a member of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation who practices Indigenous law in British Columbia, said Mr. Trudeau’s failed promises to be the great reconciliator “have almost made reconciliation a four-letter word,” but he also said that Ms. Simon’s appointment will generally be heralded “as an empowered representation of the seriousness of our constitutional partnership.”
Symbols weren’t the only things. Mr. Trudeau had cast the role for symbolism and celebrity last time, but former astronaut Julie Payette was ill-suited for the post and accused by employees of making Rideau Hall a toxic workplace. Job one this time was picking a kinder, gentler viceroy, and the warm Ms. Simon fit that bill.
Yet she didn’t tick all the boxes. And Mr. Trudeau apparently stewed over it: It took five months to appoint Ms. Simon. Still, a Liberal prime minister named Trudeau, expected to seek re-election within months, chose to overlook lack of French that struck Ms. Simon off the shortlist before.
Ms. Simon handled the issue deftly at her Tuesday news conference, saying she spoke Inuktituk and English, but was denied the opportunity to learn French in the federal government’s day schools in northern Quebec. She promised, at 73, to learn French, and exercise her functions in all three languages.
Politically, the lack of French might not be a big deal, either. On Tuesday, politicians weren’t critical. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet complained the office was illegitimate, rather than the appointee.
But there is still some potentially touchy language symbolism. Proposals to appoint non-French-speaking Supreme Court judges to expand the roster of potential Indigenous appointees have created controversy before, and some might worry there is a parallel in this.
Mr. Trudeau chose to disregard that. In Ms. Simon, he didn’t just find a symbol of reconciliation, but someone who still talks about it with hope.
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