TORONTO — History will be made Monday in the Senate chamber as the first Indigenous person takes office as the 30th governor general of Canada.
Mary Simon, an Inuk from Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec, and lifelong champion for the inherent rights of the Inuit, will take the oath in a slimmed down ceremony, which will be extraordinary for the few people who are actually able to witness it in person. It will also be the first installation, which takes place outside of the Centre Block of Parliament since 1940.
The new governor general will be the 13th Canadian citizen to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada, ending six months when the chief justice filled the role on an acting basis as administrator of the government.
It is the longest the country has gone without a governor general in office since Confederation, and slightly edges out the last lengthy period in 1974 when Bora Laskin replaced then governor general Jules Léger, who was recovering from a stroke.
Chief Justice Wagner has served without fuss in the dual roles of these two high offices and has even seemed to enjoy the responsibility. In a written and video statement, which were posted on the website in the last week, he pointed out some of the highlights of this role such as recognizing Canadians and being a part of the constitutional machinery, which make the government operate. But there is nothing to come compare with having a full-time governor general in office, particularly at such a troubled time in Canada.
Madam Simon will become the fifth woman to represent the Queen in our system of government – four of the last five governor-generals have been female. It was Canada that first appointed women to represent the Queen in 1974, when Pauline McGibbon served as lieutenant governor of Ontario. Since then, it has become unremarkable for women to fulfill these roles – far earlier than they did the office of prime minister or provincial premiers.
Mary Simon comes to office amidst one of the greatest economic and health crises that the country has faced. In addition, a reckoning of the truth about our history, particularly the legacy of residential schools and treatment of Indigenous peoples, has come into sharp relief in recent weeks.
This would be challenging enough for anyone, but combined with the fallen esteem of the office of governor general by her predecessor, it will make for an uphill road for the Queen’s new representative.
Madam Simon also comes to the office at age 73, the oldest person to be sworn in as governor general. Her energy and enthusiasm for the pace of the job, for the travel in Canada and abroad, will be put to the test in very short order.
Since the appointment of an experienced bureaucrat as secretary to the governor general, who is highly familiar with the workings of the machinery of government, the new governor general will be fully supported by the loyal and competent staff at Rideau Hall, as have her predecessors.
A wise governor general does not become involved in the details of the management of the office, but instead provides leadership by communicating a vision clearly for their role and focusses on finding ways to make a difference both on the public stage and in exercising their right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.
Mary Simon has extensive experience working with the bureaucracy and she is more likely to be able to find the right balance in this in a way that her predecessor, who was forced to leave the office earlier this year, did not.
Ms. Simon’s experience with the world of diplomacy as a former Canadian ambassador will stand her in good stead with that part of the job, which is extensive. She has also participated in many discussions around Canadian honours and is a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec, in addition to others. She will play a key role in recognizing all those who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic across the country in large and small ways.
The source of the only controversy about her nomination is her inability to speak French. The ability to speak both of Canada’s official languages has always been an important consideration in national office, and governor-generals since 1940 have had some ability and most were fluent. At least four of the Anglophones who held the position worked hard at French – although they came to the office with some abilities in the language. Even for the 17 British-born governor-generals, seven of them were fluent in French as there has always been a recognition of the importance of French at Rideau Hall.
But Mary Simon comes with an ability to speak Inuktitut, the first governor general who can speak an Indigenous language and this will be an important milestone for many Canadians, particularly the 40,000 who speak it. But It will be a tall order for the new governor general at this stage in life to gain an extensive ability to speak French, although she has recognized this and promised to address it.
While the governor general cannot play a role in policy with respect to Indigenous issues, nor directly improve services to Indigenous communities, she can play an important role in providing moral leadership at this very fraught and tragic time, as many Canadians have come to a greater understanding of the impact of residential schools and the young people who did not return from them.
There is no doubt that the new governor general will personify the Crown’s responsibilities under treaty and reconciliation and will play a role in traditional ceremonies as well as in speaking out about the tragedy of residential schools, as she herself was educated in a federally run day school.
The balance she establishes as an Indigenous woman, while also representing the Crown and respecting the role of the prime minister and ministers to be responsible for discharging their duties in implementing the recommendations of the residential schools report will be delicate. However, Canadians are looking for someone to show nonpartisan leadership and provide a focus for healing, and this governor general is well suited to do this as never before.
She will also be commander-in-chief, and the Canadian Armed Forces are going through a very troubled moment in their command structure and personnel. While the governor general is not able to intervene in investigations and inquiries, she can provide a sense of leadership and recognition to those who serve in all ranks. Her first public duty after taking the oath on Monday will be the inspection of the first of many guards of honour at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
This could not more dramatically demonstrate the significance of the governor general’s importance to the military and with remembering Canada’s proud military history and those who have died in service to the country. Given events of recent weeks, this aspect of her role will be a very important one, more so than many of her predecessors.
The installation ceremony on Monday, while more subdued thanks to the pandemic, will still signal how Madam Simon intends to fulfil her duties as the governor general and commander-in-chief of Canada.
She will speak about her priorities for youth and for reconciliation. Her focus on the Inuit will bring attention to Canada’s North and “the people” (the Inuit) of this enduring culture. It has taken almost five centuries since Samuel de Champlain arrived in what is now Canada for a woman of Indigenous birth to take up a role of the de facto head of state and to be the national representative of a Crown based in another country.
When she met the Queen virtually last week (another first), it was a remarkable moment for two women who have seen Canada from such different perspectives and in such different roles over many years.
It is fitting that an Inuk from northern Canada should finally be sworn into that role and fully represent Canadians both to themselves as well as to other countries. Expectations are high across Canada and the Office of Governor General needs renewal and restoration. When she was born, as the daughter of an Inuk and the manager of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, few would have thought that this journey was possible.
In many ways there are few who personify what Canada is and what it can become than Mary Simon.