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‘Historic’ step as Trudeau appoints Canada’s first Indigenous governor general

‘Historic’ step as Trudeau appoints Canada’s first Indigenous governor general

Canada will have its first ever Indigenous governor general after prime minister Justin Trudeau appointed Inuk leader Mary Simon as the Queen’s representative in Canada.

Describing the move as a “historic” step, Trudeau announced Simon’s appointment on Tuesday after coming under mounting pressure to choose a new viceregal. His previous selection resigned after allegations of bullying in January.

“Canada is a place defined by people. People who serve those around them, who tackle big challenges with hope and determination, and above all, who never stop working to build a brighter tomorrow,” said Trudeau. “In other words, people like Mary Simon.”

Originally from Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of Quebec, Simon is a longtime advocate of Inuit rights. She previously served as the former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the country’s national advocacy organization for Inuit. She also served as Canada’s first Inuk ambassador in Denmark and for circumpolar affairs.

“I am honoured, humbled and ready to be Canada’s first indigenous Governor General,” she said, also giving remarks in Inuktitut, her first language. “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.”

Simon’s appointment comes at a time when Canada’s rocky relationship with Indigenous nations has worsened, following the discovery of more than one thousand unmarked graves across the country.

In her remarks, Simon spoke of the need for the country to “fully recognize, memorialize and come to terms with the atrocities of our collective past” as more is learned about the legacy of residential schools.

Canada’s residential schools

‘Historic’ step as Trudeau appoints Canada’s first Indigenous governor general

Canada’s residential schools

Over the course of 100 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.

They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect and suicide; many were never returned to their families.

The last residential school closed in 1996.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In 2015, a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded that the residential school system amounted to a policy of cultural genocide.

Survivor testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife at the schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed down to younger generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.

Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, and racism against Indigenous people is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.

The commissioners identified 20 unmarked gravesites at former residential schools, but they also warned that more unidentified gravesites were yet to be found across the country.

Trudeau’s previous pick for governor general, Julie Payette, resigned in January after a number of anonymous staff told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation they were berated by Payette to the point of tears. Others said that she would call their work “shit” and order them out of her office.

The position is largely symbolic but once formally installed, Simon will outrank Trudeau as holder of highest federal office in Canada, second only to the Queen.

Ahead of a looming election, Trudeau had faced pressure to appoint a governor general. One of Simon’s tasks will be to dissolve parliament upon the prime minister’s request.

Simon’s landmark appointment also comes amid growing skepticism over the role the monarchy plays in Canada.

According to recent polling 55% of respondents believe the royal family is no longer relevant. Given the chance, 43% of respondents said they would eliminate the position of governor general. Only 22% would opt to keep the role as is.


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