It’s disappointing to see that an important moment in Canadian history might be overshadowed by attempts to score points in one of Canada’s long-standing cultural debates.
Mary Simon will be installed as Canada’s 30th Governor General on Monday, and in so doing will become the first Indigenous person to become the Queen’s representative to Canada.
The position of governor general is a mostly ceremonial post, but it is also one of Canada’s most visible. In addition to reading the speech from the throne to begin each parliamentary session, governors general must give royal assent to bills passed by the House of Commons and Senate in order for them to become law.
Ms. Simon will also become the country’s commander-in-chief and will represent Canadians at home or abroad. She will be a figurehead of the nation and its people, even if she is a representative of the Crown.
Having that figurehead be an Indigenous person is a momentous step. For too long, Canadian governments and the Crown, represented by previous governors general, mistreated and marginalized First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
As with so many pivotal moments in Canadian politics however, there’s a hitch.
Ms. Simon, 73, is an Inuk who was born and raised in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec. She learned Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit who inhabit much of Canada’s northern regions, and studied English at a federal day school. Despite growing up in Quebec, she had no opportunity to learn French at school.
Once installed in her new post, she will become a leading diplomat for Canada. When she was nominated on July 6, she admitted she does not speak French, one of Canada’s two official languages according to the Official Languages Act, but promised to learn during her term in office. Still, her lack of francophone ability has drawn about 400 complaints to the federal government’s Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
That prompted the commissioner, Raymond Théberge, to launch an investigation into the nomination process for governors general. He added that Ms. Simon’s nomination could set a precedent for future appointments of senior officials.
Those who have voiced objection to Ms. Simon’s nomination might be encouraged to consider how she can be a unifying figure between Canada and its Indigenous people at a key moment, and that it will be the words she speaks, rather than the languages in which she speaks them, that will resonate most with Canadians.
The country must continue to be vigilant about official-language rights, but Ms. Simon’s appointment offers an ideal moment to modernize the "two solitudes" debate author Hugh MacLennan popularized with his 1945 novel. The long-simmering squabble between anglophones and francophones appears rather time-worn when compared with the list of grievances Indigenous people have with the federal government and its English and French power-brokers.
The long–simmering squabble between anglophones and francophones appears rather time–worn when compared with the list of grievances Indigenous people have with the federal government and its English and French power–brokers.
Michaëlle Jean, during her installation speech as governor general in 2005, said the "time of the two solitudes" is past and that Canada must promote solidarity among all citizens who make up the country. That refers not only to newcomers to Canada, but also to descendants of those who lived here before English and French explorers and colonists arrived centuries ago.
The symbolism of an Indigenous person as the Queen’s representative to Canada, and the element of reconciliation Ms. Simon’s installation provides, builds on that solidarity pledge and should hold far more weight than any criticism of her language skills.