Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Whatever happens next, future historians will get to spend a great deal of time and words arguing about how to interpret the decision of the twenty-third prime minister of canada and second Trudeau in the job to finally name an Indigenous person to the position of governor general in 2021. The governor general, along with the ten lieutenant governors, one per province, serve as the representatives of the canadian head of state, whoever the reigning monarch is in england at the time. So right now, they represent the quietly embattled queen Elizabeth II. Technically the governor general in particular is quite powerful, including opening and closing the federal parliament and granting royal assent to all legislation. In reality today these powers are symbolic more than anything else. There is also more to their job than that, but those are the most visible powers to most people in canada. In all cases, the general and lieutenant governors are supposed to be non-partisan in their behaviour and decisions. Supposed to be, but there is a significant human factor here. Arguments about whether a governor general's behaviour was partisan or not and whether partisan enough to be unacceptable rumble quietly on over Michaëlle Jean. She was selected by another liberal party prime minister, Paul Martin, and served as governor general from 2005 to 2010. Still, it looks like as a matter of practicality there is nowhere for Mary Simon to take the reputation of the governor general among the canadian public anywhere but up.
There are many things about the appointment and her subsequent installation in the job that raise all manner of questions, from the fact that no one born into canadian citizenship was appointed governor general until 1952, to the many difficult aspects of the timing. For one thing, the new governor general steps into a position with staff in disarray after the fraught tenure of former astronaut Julie Payette. Payette was forced to resign after just 3 and a half years due to a third party review finding that she had created a toxic work environment. It probably did not help that she refused to move into the governor general's official residence in ottawa, rideau hall, which at minimum had bad optics because of the actual and implied extra expense of her alternate residence and modifications to rideau hall itself according to her requests. On top of that, Trudeau has already demonstrated questionable behaviour to a prominent first Indigenous appointee to a major government position, in this case attorney general. Jody Wilson-Raybould was forced out of the job allegedly after she did not halt persecution of a large québec corporation, and suffered a demotion to a different position that led her to leave the liberal party and sit as an independent. On top of that, saying the liberal party has grave problems with its "reconciliation" project is putting the issue mildly. Unmarked cemeteries at former residential school sites, the by turns absurd and appalling saga of the TMX pipeline forced into a reconsideration process by problems with Indigenous consultation, and the grimly building scandal of the failed liberal promise to bring clean water to every reserve are bad enough. Inuk new democratic party member of parliament for Nunavut, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq has recently confirmed she will not be running for her seat again, citing a poisonous work environment, which itself adds far more than enough. To make matters far worse was an at best hideous gaff by crown-Indigenous minister Carolyn Bennet, whose private text to Wilson-Raybould suggesting that her recent political activity was about getting a federal pension, and Wilson-Raubould's tweet about it – has not forced Bennet into resigning – yet.
Mary Simon preparing to be sworn in as the governor general of canada in july 2021, quoting a photograph from cbc.ca news
by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.
All of which is not to suggest in any way that Mary Simon is a wilting flower who can't stand up to tough conditions. Far from it, she is a highly respected Inuk leader of longstanding. Her previous work includes treaty negotiator, ambassador, and Inuit representative during the talks leading up to Pierre Trudeau's effort to patriate canada's constitution. She led the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, now Council from 1986 to 1992. The ICC is a complex organization that works on behalf of all Inuit across colonial borders, which means across canada, the united states, the soviet union and now russia, and denmark. Working in a multilingual, multicultural context for high stakes is no new thing for her. Simon is fully fluent in Inuktitut and english, and has generously committed to learn french. Nevertheless, at least a few hundred complaints have already been made that she is not already a french speaker, because Inuktitut is not recognized as an official language in canada. The profound ugliness and ignorance of these complaints is hard to put polite words to. No doubt there are unguarded opinions that since Simon is from a community currently treated as part of Québec, Kuujjuaq, that she should already be bilingual. That is not the way federal day schools worked however, and when Simon attended one it was still before Pierre Trudeau's attempts to weaken québec nationalism by adopting an official policy of bilingualism and multiculturalism, including major federal funding for french language and culture in canada. That the half-hearted attempts to assimilate french canadians ended even as the residential schools remained open and the new bilingualism push would accompany the infamous 1969 white paper was not lost on Indigenous peoples. Nor should we forget that since 1952 the practice has been to name an anglophone then a francophone to the position, and Payette is a francophone.
Certainly Simon is going to have a strong public spotlight on her for the immediate future, perhaps for much longer than that depending on how the Trudeau government handles its still resistance to dealing constructively and justly with its own legacy of bad behaviour towards Indigenous peoples in what is currently called canada, let alone the resistance of other governing parties. She may end up in a tricky spot indeed since at present the liberal government is a minority one, where no party has an overall majority of seats, but one has the confidence of the house. Should the liberals lose a confidence vote, that can do one of two things: it can simply trigger an election, or the governor general may invite the leader of the opposition to form a government. Canada has actually had more minority governments than majority ones, and the second option is not an arbitrary use of power. More often than not it has been about maintaining some form of overall stability in difficult conditions, such as during severe economic depression or when canada participated in the world wars. On top of that, the already notorious complaints about Simon's linguistic resources are of a piece with a current growing xenophobic trend in québec politics that may raise other complex issues for Simon as she undertakes duties that take her back to the province.
Those are just the old-fashioned type political issues. Simon will also have to prove herself in the face of the doubts raised by Trudeau's evident attempts to appear as progressive and "woke" in today's parlance as possible, while hopefully deflecting critical attention away from himself. This is not working out well in the earliest days, as more than one critic has pointed out that this appointment at least looks tokenizing. Kwantlen First Nation writer Robert Jago raised important questions and concerns about naming an Indigenous person to the position of governor general in 2017 after the speculation about whether the twenty-ninth governor general would be the first Indigenous one. As he noted in an opinion piece for cbc.ca at the time, "Sure, an Indigenous governor general would be a symbol, but primarily one to non-Natives – to white Canada – and a dangerous one that could derail reconciliation, at that." He notes that such an appointment may be misconstrued the way Barack Obama winning the united states presidency was, as a sign that racism was not a real problem anymore to people who think they are white. Worse yet, unlike a president or a prime minister, a governor general has primarily symbolic power, with no genuine powers over legislation or funds at all. It is also easy for us to forget now how high hopes were for Obama, that even in canada many people had unrealistic expectations that he would solve complex problems in a government long known for its growing failure to govern. On the other hand, the fact is that Simon is the governor general, not the prime minister. Trudeau already has egg all over his face from multiple directions: in his own caucus, outside of it, and from canada at large. Will Mary Simon, like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, have to put up with constantly being checked by parliamentary security? Or is it possible that her white hair and the poise she has developed over her broad experience will curb the bad attitudes security staff generally bring towards Indigenous people, young Indigenous people especially? Of course, time will tell about all of these things. At her swearing in according to the cbc, Simon noted, "I was born Mary Jeannie May in Arctic Quebec, now known as Nunavik. My Inuk name is Ningiukudluk. And prime minister, it means 'bossy little old lady...'" This made everyone laugh, of course. Nevertheless, she wasn't simply making a joke here.
She put Justin Trudeau on notice that just like Jody Wilson-Raybould and Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and many, many, Indigenous leaders, she is no push over.