OTTAWA – Mary Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, has been named as Canada’s next governor general – the first Indigenous person to serve in the role.
“It is only by building bridges, bringing between people in the North and South, just like in the East and West, that we can truly move forward,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday after he made the announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
“Mary Simon has done that throughout her life. I know she will help continue paving that path ahead. And we will all be stronger for it. Today after 154 years, our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment.”
He said Queen Elizabeth has approved the appointment.
Simon, who was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, is the former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national advocacy organization for Inuit.
A longtime advocate for Inuit culture and rights, she also served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark and the Canadian ambassador for circumpolar affairs.
Simon began her remarks by speaking in Inuktitut and then in English said she thanked Trudeau for the “historic opportunity” and she is “honoured, humbled and ready to be Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.”
Her appointment comes at a critical moment for Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, after ground-penetrating radar located in recent weeks what are believed to be the unmarked graves of hundreds of children near former residential schools.
During her remarks, Simon described her appointment as a “historic and inspirational moment for Canada, and a step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” and spoke about having grown up with an Inuk mother and a father from the south.
She also sought to confront one potential controversy: the fact she is not fluent in French.
“Based on my experience growing up in Quebec, I was denied the chance to learn French during my time in the federal government day schools,” she said.
“I am deeply committed to continuing my French-language studies and plan to conduct the business of the governor general in both of Canada’s official languages as well as Inuktitut, one of many Indigenous languages spoken across the country.”
The position of governor general, who represents the Queen in Canada, has been vacant since Julie Payette resigned in January following a scathing independent report on the toxic work environment that had developed at Rideau Hall during her tenure.
Chief Justice Richard Wagner had been fulfilling the governor general’s duties as administrator, but the need to appoint a replacement has become more pronounced in recent weeks as signs increasingly point to the Liberals desiring an election this summer or fall.
The prime minister would need to ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament to trigger an election, but person in the viceregal position could also play a key role should none of the parties earn enough seats to form a majority government.
As a result, some experts have argued having the office filled by a long-term occupant with the standing to deal with constitutional questions is more important than usual.
Asked whether they had discussed an imminent election call, both Trudeau and Simon said the issue had not been broached.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet did not mention Simon’s lack of French in a tweet. He said he choice of governor general belongs to the prime minister and the “Queen of England” and that the role is not representative, elected or legitimate.
“I hope that this appointment will facilitate an admission by the Crown and Canada of the abuse suffered by Indigenous people,” he wrote in French.
Following Payette’s resignation, the Liberal government re-established an advisory panel to help select her successor. The approach was like the one used by the previous Conservative government, which the Liberals dropped when they picked the former astronaut.
Co-chaired by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Privy Council clerk Janice Charette, the panel included Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Universite de Montreal rector Daniel Jutras, Canada Post chair Suromitra Sanatani, and former secretary to the Governor General Judith LaRocque.
Payette, a former astronaut, was appointed Canada’s 29th governor general in 2017. Her appointment followed the nearly seven-year term of noted academic David Johnston.
Trudeau’s decision was questioned nearly from the start, after the prime minister abandoned the formal panel set up by the previous Conservative government to make viceregal appointments and instead moved the decision into his office.