Mary Simon is an excellent choice to navigate the complicated and at times painful dynamic of Crown-Indigenous relations, Indigenous advocates said Tuesday, describing her appointment as governor general as a major step forward.
“I’m proud of her and the fact that there’s an Inuk now as the Queen’s representative in Canada,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization that Simon once led.
“I recognize that these institutions were not created for such days like today, and so there is some work that still needs to be done,” said Obed, who was also a member of the advisory group that produced a shortlist of names for governor general.
“But I also think that Mary is well suited to have some of these conversations and to really think and reflect on how her appointment can positively impact the relationship between Indigenous peoples in this country.”
Simon, an Inuk woman born in Nunavik in 1947, has been described by peers as eminently qualified for the job, having served as an ambassador, negotiator and leader of Indigenous organizations.
She’s also been a strong advocate for the environment with a deep knowledge of the issues facing Canada’s north.
“Governor General Simon is someone who has had to make space to be heard in places where Indigenous women have been excluded, silenced and ignored,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.
“She has done so, not by yelling or pushing, but by being consistently kind, brilliant and thoughtful, thus formidable. I do not doubt for a moment that she can carry the weight and, if necessary, make decisions only the governor general must make.”
Simon’s appointment as the Queen’s representative in Canada comes at a particularly difficult time for Crown-Indigenous relations, amid the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former Indian residential schools — institutions now widely recognized as a form of cultural genocide carried out by the Canadian government and churches.
Those discoveries have sparked major protests across the country and demands that the federal government finally live up to its promise of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Recognizing that the role of governor general is apolitical, there remains an opportunity for Simon to educate the public about residential schools, and ensuring that the children who were taken from their homes are honoured, said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
“I think often there’s a conflation between partisanship and just speaking on public policy issues,” Blackstock said. “I think the governor general has an obligation to not be partisan but I think they also have an obligation to speak out on social justice issues as part of their role.
“Because if you’re not able as the Queen’s representative to speak out against social injustices, economic injustices and others, then other than doing ceremonial duties, what is the purpose of this?”
Turpel-Lafond pointed out that Simon was a federal government day school student, which was also the reason Simon said she never learned French as a child. Like residential schools, day schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children.
“She is familiar with the legacy of residential schools, and day schools, and the human rights abuses and harms caused, which continue to present generations,” Turpel-Lafond said. “This is a major asset at the national level, as we grapple with what must be considered a genocide and unmarked burials.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, Simon said that her appointment comes at a “reflective and dynamic time in our shared history,” and said she recognized the limitations of her role.
She committed herself to the promotion of healing across Canada.
“I don’t see a conflict because as the Queen’s representative in Canada I am very concerned about the circumstances that led to some of the events that we have seen today,” she said.
“I do understand as an Indigenous person that there is pain and suffering across our nation…We need to stop to fully recognize and memorialize and come to terms with the atrocities of our collective past that we are learning more about each day.”
Obed said that Simon, with whom he spoke recently, “I think is understanding that she is going to be expected to be more political than previous governors general based on her ethnicity and based on the current climate in this country.”
At the same time, he said it’s important for the public to recognize that she does not hold the responsibility for righting all the wrongs of the state, and that it would be unfair to place “additional weights and responsibilities” on her that were not placed on previous holders of the office.
“I know it’s not going to be easy, and she knows it’s not going to be easy,” Obed said.
“But I have every confidence that she’ll be able to meet all of these challenges and to excel in the role, no matter what scenarios are put in her path.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant