By Steve Scherer
OTTAWA (Reuters) – The first indigenous Canadian to assume the post of governor general addressed the public in her first language, Inuktitut, on Tuesday, and promised to work toward healing the nation at what she described as an “especially reflective time.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of Mary Simon, a former ambassador, journalist and Inuit community activist, to the largely ceremonial post that serves as the representative in Canada of its head of state, Queen Elizabeth.
“We are honored to have Ms. Simon as Canada’s first indigenous governor general,” Trudeau said. The queen’s Twitter account said she had approved the appointment on the prime minister’s recommendation.
Canada has been grappling with the legacy of its treatment of indigenous people, particularly in recent months. Since May, hundreds of unmarked graves of children have been discovered at former residential schools, run for indigenous children forcibly separated from their families in what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called “cultural genocide.”
“My appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history,” Simon told reporters. “I will work every day towards promoting healing and wellness across Canadian society.”
After being introduced, she addressed the public first in Inuktitut, the Inuit language she spoke growing up in northern Quebec, adding she was deeply committed to improving her French, one of Canada’s two official languages.
She was appointed more than five months after her predecessor, Julie Payette, quit the role amid allegations of workplace harassment.
The governor general performs functions such as swearing in governments and formally signing legislation, but is also the commander in chief of the military and can summon or dissolve Parliament.
‘TRULY HISTORIC DAY’
Canadian indigenous groups welcomed Simon’s appointment.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada said it was “delighted” to see the first Inuit person become governor general “in a country that has been home to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years.”
Simon, who was born in 1947, will serve a five-year term. She worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp in the 1970s, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2001 and ambassador for circumpolar affairs from 1994 to 2003.
She was also chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a group representing Inuit from a number of countries, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the country’s main Inuit advocacy group, from 2006 to 2012.
With an Inuk mother and a non-indigenous father who worked for Hudson’s Bay Co, she has spent her life as a “bridge between different lived realities that make up the tapestry of Canada,” while fighting for Indigenous and human rights, she said.
“This is truly a historic day, especially given the heightened discussion around working towards meaningful reconciliation between colonial governments and first peoples,” said Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 First Nations groups in Manitoba.
The prime minister is expected to ask the new governor general to dissolve Parliament ahead of a snap vote as early as August, but both Trudeau and Simon denied having discussed elections before her appointment.
“We did not discuss elections at all,” Trudeau said.
Opposition Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Trudeau’s main political rival, wished Simon well, as did left-leaning New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh.
“This is an important day for both our country as a whole and particularly Indigenous peoples,” O’Toole said on Twitter.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)