OTTAWA — Inuk leader Mary Simon will be Canada’s 30th Governor General, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday. She is making history as the first Indigenous person in this country to take on the role.
“Today, after 154 years, our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment,” he said, adding that he sees Simon’s new position as one in which she “will help continue paving that path ahead, and we will all be stronger for it.”
Queen Elizabeth II approved the appointment, on Trudeau’s recommendation. Simon is currently Canada’s Governor General Designate and, once installed, will out-rank Trudeau in holding the second-highest federal office in Canada after the Queen.
Trudeau’s office told CTVNews.ca that Simon’s installation will happen “soon.”
Simon began her introductory remarks in Inuktitut, and went on to thank both Trudeau and the Queen for their confidence in her taking on this “very historic opportunity.”
“I believe we can build the hopeful future in a way that is respectful of what has happened in the past…If we embrace our common humanity and shared responsibility for one another, Canada’s greatest days are yet to come,” Simon said.
Simon’s appointment comes as Canada struggles with reconciliation and as more unmarked graves are discovered on former residential school grounds across the country, with Trudeau heading on Tuesday afternoon to a ceremony at the largest site of unmarked graves discovered to date.
Once a student at a federal government day school, Simon said she hopes to develop a relationship between Indigenous people and Canadians “where this will never happen again.”
From Nunavik, in northern Quebec, Simon has long been an advocate for Inuit rights and culture. She has worked as a radio host with CBC North and later served as chair of national advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the National Inuit Education Committee.
She has also worked alongside the federal government on several files over many years, including on the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on the Charlottetown Accord, the repatriation of the Constitution, and during the implementation of Canada’s first land claims policy.
Simon was the first Inuk to be a Canadian ambassador, representing Canada both as the ambassador of circumpolar affairs and as the ambassador to Denmark.
Now, she will take on the role of the Queen’s representative in Canada.
SIMON ‘HUMBLED, AND READY’
Simon said Tuesday that she is “honoured, humbled, and ready” for the job. Noting the inspirational aspect of her appointment, Simon called it a step forward on the path towards reconciliation and a moment that she hopes all Canadians feel a part of as it reflects a “collective progress” towards a more just society.
“My appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history. During my time as governor general, I will work every day towards promoting healing and wellness across Canadian society,” she said, vowing to do her part in ensuring the country fully recognizes, memorializes, and comes to terms with atrocities of the past.
In offering some personal backstory, Simon spoke about her family and childhood—her mom is Inuk and her father “from the south,” a manager of a local Hudson’s Bay post—and acknowledged that she does not speak French but plans to learn.
Simon said that she was denied the chance to pick up the language when she attended day school as a child, but is determined to conduct her work in English, Inuktitut, and French.
She views her past experience as offering her the ability to act as a “bridge” between realities in Canada.
During her life she’s made headlines for speaking out on a range of issues including mental health, the seal trade, and dumping of sewage in Arctic waters, speaking up for the oft-marginalized voices in the North. It’s work that led her to be previously speculated as a potential pick for the job she’s now entering.
PLAYING A KEY ELECTIONS ROLE
While the position is largely ceremonial, Simon will play a crucial role in constitutional matters and within minority governments when it comes to questions of confidence.
Perhaps most notably, given the rampant speculation that a summer or fall election call is likely, the governor general has the power to dissolve Parliament and draw up the writs for a general election, on the advice of the prime minister.
On Tuesday, the two said they had not yet discussed elections but that Simon understood the importance of her parliamentary responsibilities.
“I give due regard to these very important roles, but at this time, I have not talked about the election at all,” she said.
She also becomes the top commander of the Canadian Armed Forces, and during her remarks she thanked the troops for their work in fighting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at home while maintaining operations abroad, and said she looks forward to meeting members of the military.
An Officer of the Order of Canada as well as a recipient of the Governor General’s Northern Award, Simon will now be in charge of granting these kinds of honours and medals of honour to others, and will be responsible for reading the speech from the throne, and swearing-in cabinet members.
REACTION TO NEW GG
The initial reaction to Simon’s appointment has been largely positive, with national Indigenous groups welcoming the choice, but voicing some caution.
“The federal government has made an excellent choice in selecting Ms. Simon as Viceregal representative of the Monarch. She has been a human-rights activist and outspoken champion of her people,” said the Native Women’s Association of Canada in a statement. “We must point out, however, that Ms. Simon is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance.”
It’s a tension that Simon acknowledged Tuesday, saying that she personally doesn’t view it as a conflict to have an Indigenous representative of the Crown.
“I do understand as an Indigenous person that there is pain and suffering across our nation… But when I was asked whether I would take on this important role, I was very excited,” she said. “This is what we call reconciliation, and it’s a lifelong experience.”
President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Natan Obed, who was on the advisory panel putting forward names for the job, told CTV News Channel that Simon is “is uniquely suited” for the role, calling her “pragmatic.”
“She is not somebody that is going to act irrationally, or to be somebody that is going to offend. She is going to be welcoming,” Obed said.
In Obed’s view, while Canada is in a better place with her as governor general, he acknowledged that: “Not all Indigenous Canadians are going to be thrilled that there’s an Indigenous Governor General.”
“There’s still a lot of work to do on reconciliation, and that also there are relationships between Indigenous peoples and the Crown that still require really difficult solutions and a change in the status quo,” he said.
Political leaders also offered their congratulations to a woman who could soon become a key figure in their political futures.
“I would like to congratulate Mary Simon on her appointment as our country’s first Indigenous Governor General. This is an important day for both our country as a whole and particularly Indigenous peoples. The role of Governor General is important in unifying our country and bringing Canadians together. I wish her well in this role,” said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole in a statement.
Taking to Twitter, calling her by her name in Inuktitut “Ningiukadluk” NDP MP for Nunavut Mumilaaq Qaqqaq said that: “The accomplishments of Inuit are often overlooked in Canada. It’s nice to see an Inuk leader being recognized with this position.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said in French that, while he does not view the role as a legitimate or democratic one, he hopes that the appointment would “make it easier for the Crown and Canada to admit the abuse suffered by aboriginal people.”
Julie Payette, who Simon will be formally replacing, also offered her congratulations.
“It is the highest honour and the greatest responsibility our nation can bestow and I am confident that Ms. Simon will fulfill its many obligations with dignity and distinction,” she said in a statement to CTV News. “I have had the chance to meet Ms. Simon and I am at her disposal as she transitions into this vital role.”
A 6-MONTH REPLACEMENT SEARCH
Canada has been without an official governor general since late January, when Payette resigned from the role.
Payette, a former astronaut and engineer had been a controversial choice for governor general from the outset, and eventually left amid reports that she fostered a “toxic” work environment. Her departure came after a “damaging” independent review into workplace harassment allegations against her was conducted.
In the interim, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Richard Wagner has been acting as the administrator, assuming the powers of the role without taking the official title.
On Tuesday, Trudeau thanked Wagner for his interim assistance.
When the vacancy was created, O’Toole had called for Trudeau to consult other parties before nominating a replacement, given the dynamics of the minority Parliament. Instead, in March the government struck an advisory panel tasked with helping select the next governor general.
The panel was co-chaired by President of the Queen’s Privy Council and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc and Janice Charette, who is filling in as Privy Council clerk. The other members included Obed, Universite de Montreal rector Daniel Jutras, former secretary to the governor general Judith LaRocque, and interim Canada Post chair Suromitra Sanatani.
Trudeau was expected to receive the shortlist of prospective candidates by mid-June, according to LeBlanc. He recently told a House committee that the advisory panel hosted 12 meetings and the list of potential appointees for Trudeau to consider was “interesting.”
When the prime minister travelled to the U.K for the G7 two weeks ago, he spoke with Queen Elizabeth about the status of the process to choose a new governor general.
While at the time the vacancy was created, LeBlanc said that it would not take months to tap a replacement, the search and likely vetting process to pick the next governor general has taken half a year, after Trudeau came under fire for not properly vetting his last pick.
On Tuesday, he said that there were “close to 100 different names vetted and reflected on” before Simon rose to the top of the list.
With files from CTV News’ Sarah Turnbull