As the Canadian government grapples with reconciliation efforts and the findings of mass unmarked graves at former residential school sites, the country’s newest incoming governor general is set to make history. Inuk activist and former diplomat Mary Simon will be the fourth woman to assume the position, but she will be the first ever Indigenous person in the role.
“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 of her appointment at a press conference.
Many people, including several politicians and MPs congratulated Simon on Twitter:
Congratulations to Ningiukadluk (Mary Simon) on her appointment as Governor General.
The accomplishments of Inuit are often overlooked in Canada. It’s nice to see an Inuk leader being recognized with this position.
— Mumilaaq Qaqqaq (@MumilaaqQaqqaq) July 6, 2021
Congrats Dr Mary Simon on your historic “ascent to the throne” in Canada from one Truth & Reconciliation Honorary Witness to another.
Walk with your head high!
We were inducted and bore witness at the same TRC national event in Alberta in 2014.
A powerful time I remember today
— Wab Kinew (@WabKinew) July 6, 2021
Related: Interview: Indigenous author Tanya Talaga talks righting legacy wrongs in Canada.
Who is Mary Simon?
Mary Simon has a long history of advocating for Inuit communities. Born in Kuujjuaq, a village in northern Quebec, Simon has been vocal about the importance of Inuit culture for years. She was on the executive council of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, now called the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an organization representing approximately 180,000 Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, to promote Inuit rights internationally and develop policies that protect the Arctic.
Simon was the first Inuk person to hold an ambassadorial position on behalf of the government. In 1994, she was appointed as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs (a position that no longer exists) and from 1991 to 2001 she served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.
She also founded the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation, which works to provide children in Nunavut with support for their physical health and mental well-being.
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Why does this matter?
The Canadian government has drawn a lot of criticism recently over the findings of mass unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former residential schools. Two weeks ago, 751 children were found on the site of the Marieval Indian residential school and more bodies continue to be recovered across the country. Earlier this month on Canada Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement reflecting on the children while also calling for change and reconciliation.
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“The horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada,” he wrote, amid calls to cancel Canada Day.
“This Canada Day, let’s recommit to learning from and listening to each other so we can break down the barriers that divide us, rectify the injustices of our past, and build a more fair and equitable society for everyone. Together, we will roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that is necessary to build a better Canada.”
Trudeau recommended Simon for the role to the queen, who approved the appointment less than a week after the statement. “Today, after 154 years, our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment,” he said yesterday, when the announcement was made.
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Why are some people skeptical of Simon’s appointment?
While many people are happy for Simon, some people are skeptical of the prime minister’s appointment of her, questioning his intentions and timing. Some people see the move as Trudeau scrambling to better the optics around the government’s track record around reconciliation, when many of the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report from six years ago have not been implemented. With the horrific discoveries of the children, many people have noted that identifying, marking and preserving residential school gravesites were all calls to action listed in the report.
TRC recommendation 45, the one big thing the Crown is asked to do. This is what ‘Reconciliation’ means in that role, in a very literal sense. This is the one thing Simon and Trudeau must accomplish. Without it – this would be a very cynical appointment. pic.twitter.com/vLkGFg9bjY
— Robert Jago (@rjjago) July 6, 2021
Canada has so much work to do to ensure Mary Simon’s position pushes beyond tokenism. Canada can’t just appoint her and declare success in reconciliation w/o allowing her to dismantle the system that needs a GG in the first place. Otherwise, Canada is setting her up for failure.
— Rebecca Thomas (@beccaleat) July 6, 2021
Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt wrote that Simon should have held the position long ago, and is now having to bear the weight of representing her people but also making them part of the big institutions that form Canada. Others agreed on Twitter that the timing seemed fishy:
Anyone who believes in Truth and Reconciliation, should actually be disappointed, if not enraged at another move by Trudeau that reeks of identity politics.
Why did he not make this appointment a month ago, two months ago?
The timing is significant.https://t.co/TSIrEF2ktl
— E (@EvKazoo) July 6, 2021
Appointing Simon shows that the government is aware that reconciliation is important. However, it’s equally important to remember how Trudeau treated former Indigenous justice minister (the first Indigenous woman in the position) and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, whom he fell out with over the SNC- Lavalin scandal. In 2019 he removed her from the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons and revoked the Liberal Party nomination for her for the federal election of that year.
With that track record, it’s understandable why some see Simon’s appointment as a political move to make the government look good, without actually putting in the work to support Indigenous peoples. Only time will tell if appointing her is truly about commitment to righting past and current injustices, or if it’s tokenism, only for show.
Related: 10 young Indigenous women leading the way for the next generation.