Politics

Governor General apologizes for saying Indigenous people were immigrants

David Johnston said Indigenous people 'were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago'

Indigenous Awards 20170619

Gov. Gen. David Johnston presents Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, from Iqaluit, Nunavut with the Meritorious Service Cross during a ceremony at Rideau Hall. At the same ceremony on Monday, Johnston apologized for saying on the weekend that Indigenous people were immigrants. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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In a ceremony honouring leadership on Indigenous issues at Rideau Hall, Gov. Gen. David Johnston has apologized for calling Indigenous people immigrants to Canada.

Johnston was referring to his comment during an interview with CBC Radio's The House Saturday. "We're a country based on immigration, going right back to our, quote, Indigenous people, unquote, who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago," he said. 

A firestorm of criticism on social media ensued as some said the comment revealed a deep-seated colonial mentality.

On Monday, he addressed the controversial remark during his opening statement in Ottawa.

"The better country we desire is above all a more inclusive one that supports, encourages and acknowledges the contributions of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples, the original peoples of this land.

"Let me apologize for not expressing myself correctly on this matter recently. Indigenous peoples are the original peoples," Johnston said.

Governor General apologizes for calling Indigenous people immigrants 0:38

Famous recipients

Some 30 recipients, including Mohawk activist Sylvia Maracle and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, were honoured at Rideau Hall, as Johnston handed out honours such as the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division), the Polar Medal and the Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers.

Order of Canada Downie

Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie hugs Gov. Gen. David Johnston after receiving the Order of Canada. Downie, who announced last year that he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, has become a strong advocate for Indigenous people and issues. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Some of the recipients are well known, including actress and former Liberal MP Tina Keeper and Inuit NHL player Jordin Tootoo, while others have been change makers in their communities outside the national spotlight, including Jarret Leaman, who has supported LGBT Indigenous youth, Imelda Perley, an Indigenous languages teacher from St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton, N.B, and Chief Bill Cranmer, from Alert Bay, B.C., who has sought to recover potlatch artifacts confiscated by the Canadian government in the 1920s. (The government instituted a ban on the ceremonies as they were seen as an impediment to assimilation.)

Indigenous Awards 20170619

NHL player Jordin Tootoo is presented with the Meritorious Service Medal during the ceremony at Rideau Hall. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Others, including Hovak Johnston and Marjorie Tahbone, were celebrated for protecting Indigenous cultural practices by reviving traditional Inuit tattoo art and reconnecting Inuit women with an art form that was "on the verge of being lost."

Meritorious Service Cross recipient Hovak Johnston

Hovak Johnston is presented with the Meritorious Service Medal for her work with the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project to re-establish an Inuit art form that was on the verge of being lost. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — Wilton Littlechild, Senator Murray Sinclair and Marie Wilson — were also honoured by Johnston with the meritorious service award for shouldering the responsibility of the commission "with fortitude, compassion and perseverance." Sinclair was not in attendance and was to receive his honour at a later date.

Indigenous Leadership 20170619

Gov. Gen. David Johnston acknowledges Wilton Littlechild, centre, and Marie Wilson before presenting them with the Meritorious Service Cross for their work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Over six years, they led the examination of the Indian residential school system, combing through myriad documents and witnessing the courage of survivors who shared their stories. Their final report invites all Canadians to confront the inequities of the past, and calls on governments and individuals alike to move forward, with greater understanding, towards reconciliation."

Actor Tom Jackson, a past recipient of the Order of Canada, brought Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, to tears after the formal ceremony with a moving call to action to improve the standing of the country's Indigenous people.

"I'm asked from time to time, 'would you like to see a better Canada?'" Jackson said. "I think if we want to see a better Canada we should maybe see Canada better."

Pointing at the Canadian flag, Jackson told the crowd that he believes the Maple Leaf is his "sister."

"I only want five seconds of your life to believe that just maybe I'm your brother," he said. "If that's my sister, and I'm your brother, now how do you see that flag?"

Tom Jackson brings PM Trudeau to tears 2:48

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