Inuk leader Mary Simon named Canada's 1st Indigenous governor general


July 6 - Ottawa

Inuk leader and former ambassador Mary Simon has been chosen as the next governor general — the first Indigenous person ever to be appointed to the role.

During a news conference across the river from Parliament Hill this morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the Queen has accepted his recommendation to appoint Simon — a past president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization — as the 30th governor general.

"I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation," said Simon from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

"Indeed, my appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history."

Simon is an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, a village on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec. She was born to a local Inuk woman and a fur trader father who worked at a Hudson's Bay Company outpost.

Simon, who is bilingual in English and Inuktitut, attended the federal Fort Chimo day school in the Nunavik region.

Asked about her lack of fluency in French, Simon said she never had the opportunity to learn Canada's other official language while at this institution — a school that has been the subject of lawsuits over the mistreatment of students by administrators.

"I was denied the chance to learn French during my stay in the federal government day schools," she told reporters. She promised to learn the language while on the job.

As governor general, she will serve a vital constitutional role; past governors general, most recently Michaëlle Jean, have had to adjudicate constitutional disputes. She's also no stranger to Canada's Constitution.

As an Inuit leader, she was on hand when the Constitution was repatriated in the 1980s. She was part of former prime minister Brian Mulroney's attempts to amend the Constitution as part of the Charlottetown Accord process in the early 1990s.

Her appointment comes during a time of reckoning in Canada's relationship with Indigenous Peoples — after radar technology discovered what's believed to be the unmarked graves of hundreds of children near former residential schools.

When asked about her unique position as the first Indigenous governor general, Simon said she doesn't see any conflict between her identity and her new role.

"Because as the Queen's representative in Canada, I am very concerned about the circumstances that led to some of the events that we are seeing today. I do understand as an Indigenous person that there is pain and suffering across our nation," she said.

"When I was asked whether I would take on this important role, I was very excited and I felt that this was a position that would help Canadians together with Indigenous Peoples."

Monica Ell-Kanayuk, the president of the ICC, said Simon already has experience representing the Crown.

"As Canada's former ambassador to the Arctic, and ambassador to Denmark, our new governor general has experience acting on behalf of the Crown and understands the challenges faced by Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples in Canada," she said in a statement.

"Canada has appointed a skilled diplomat to a position that can contribute to the reconciliation process Canada is engaged in."

Obed said Indigenous people have a complex attitude toward the institution of the governor general's office.

"There have been conversations over the past two decades about whether or not Canada is ready for an Indigenous governor general and whether that would be appropriate," he said.

"So it is a longstanding political conversation. Absolutely, it's not black or white. Many Indigenous people have negative feelings toward that institution, but that's not all Indigenous people."

The Native Women's Association of Canada congratulated Simon but said she "is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance."

"To achieve true reconciliation, the federal government must re-examine its appointments of ministers to lead departments that have a profound effect on Indigenous lives – the departments of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services," said the group in a statement.

"It is time that those two ministries are led by Indigenous people. It is time for the government to get out of the way and to allow Indigenous people to manage their own affairs."

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