An Indigenous governor general is a symbol — and not an empty one

Mary Simon is going to Rideau Hall at a difficult moment — both for the office she will soon hold and for the country itself. There is a risk of putting too much on her shoulders.

Mary Simon should have been Trudeau's pick in 2017. Better late than never.

Mary Simon looks towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he announces her appointment as the next governor general at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Mary Simon is going to Rideau Hall at a difficult moment — both for the office she will soon hold and for the country itself. There is a risk of putting too much on her shoulders.

The mere fact of her appointment as the first Indigenous governor general might not fix anything. But she will have an opportunity to strengthen, in ways big and small, both the office she holds and the country she serves.

In hindsight, Simon should have been Justin Trudeau's pick in 2017.

It's not hard to see what Trudeau must have seen in Julie Payette. Anything involving an astronaut is exciting. If she had been remotely ready for or personally suited to the job, it might have been a fine appointment.

But Trudeau and his advisers somehow didn't know what they were getting themselves and Rideau Hall into. That does not reflect well on the government. More significant is the reputational damage done to the office of the governor general that Payette left behind — at a time when the future of the Crown in Canada is not at all assured.

The immediate responsibility of Canada's 30th governor general was always going to be to repair the Rideau Hall workplace and rehabilitate the institution's public image. Payette's successor was always going to have little margin for error or controversy.

Simon's background as a leader, administrator, negotiator and ambassador suggests she's well suited to those challenges.

A watershed moment for the office

She does not speak French fluently — a fact she traced to her education in a federally run day school. Maybe that's one reason she was not chosen before now. But her other skills and attributes — and the nature of this moment in the country's history — might matter more now than her language abilities.

The candidate vetting seems to have been more thorough this time, at least. And the symbolic value of her appointment is deep — as a mark of progress, it could rank with the appointment of the first Canadian-born governor general, Vincent Massey, in 1952.

"Mary Simon is an incredibly talented, gifted, knowledgeable Indigenous leader with a lot of experience. She's also an honorary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has an intimate knowledge even of the day school system in the north," said Ry Moran, former director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and now university librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria.

"And I think right now, the events that are unfolding across the country are placing ever-increasing weight on the importance of reconciliation, on the importance of truth-telling. I think Mary Simon is a real asset to this country, to continue to remind us collectively of our responsibilities, to continue to encourage all Canadians to heed the call for reconciliation and to help all Canadians continue to chart their path forward."

Protesters march to Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a "Cancel Canada Day" protest in response to the discovery of unmarked Indigenous graves at residential schools on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Representation matters. The governor general is more than the Queen's representative — the governor general represents the country to itself. And however apolitical or ceremonial the office must be, a governor general has the power to speak to shared values. While the role of the governor general is necessarily limited, there is still a chance to contribute.

Simon said her upbringing as the daughter of an Inuk mother and a white father allows her "to be a bridge between the different lived realities that together make up the tapestry of Canada." She spoke about the importance of understanding, knowledge and respect.

WATCH: Mary Simon discusses her childhood in the North

Governor general-designate Mary Simon describes her early life

1 year ago
Duration 2:41
Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as the ambassador to Denmark. Simon also was a host with CBC North.

"During my time as governor general, I will work every day towards promoting healing and wellness across Canadian society," she said.

She extended that message beyond the reconciliation project and the "atrocities of our collective past," applying it to protecting the natural world and addressing the needs of young people.

"I believe strongly that if we embrace our common humanity and shared responsibility for one another, Canada's brightest days are yet to come," she said.

The burden of history

The idea of an Indigenous governor general has existed for some years — Simon herself was discussed as a candidate in 2010. But the concept has brought up questions about the nature of the governor general's role itself.

The first Indigenous governor general would always be expected to carry a heavy burden of history. Some suggested that appointing an Indigenous governor general would force a reconsideration of the idea that the Queen's representative in Canada must remain silent on controversial or political matters. Some suggested that such an appointment would be empty symbolism.

Simon's appointment does not excuse or make up for any of the Trudeau government's failures, or those of Canada itself. The ultimate responsibility for the government of Canada's actions on reconciliation will always rest with the prime minister. And Simon may encounter tensions or expectations that her predecessors didn't face.

Jane Kigutaq, a kindergarten teacher from Arctic Bay now living in Ottawa, protests on Parliament Hill at a "Cancel Canada Day" in response to the discovery of unmarked Indigenous graves at residential schools on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

But even if Simon's arrival at Rideau Hall won't change everything, it can still mean something.

"For the first time in history, a leader is going to be speaking Indigenous languages in [Rideau Hall], in the people's house," Moran said. "We can think back to a time in this country, not very long ago, where that wouldn't have even been possible and that those languages would have been prevented and prohibited, really — that Indigenous peoples would have been kept right at the door.

"So while it is symbolic, it is symbolic of some of the change that's happening. And I think what we can hope for is that this is just the start of a whole series of changes that are going to continue to happen as we see more and more Indigenous peoples, more and more diverse people generally, moving into positions of senior leadership in this country."

Trudeau should be immensely thankful if this appointment somewhat makes up for what happened with his first try. But if Simon's time at Rideau Hall does enough to reinforce the institution and help the country move forward, that would be the real victory.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.