Canada raises the bar with first Indigenous GG, sends important message to international community
By DALEE SAMBO DOROUGH AUGUST 19, 2021
This high-profile platform provides an unprecedented opportunity to educate Canadians and the world about Inuit and Indigenous peoples in general.
Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon, pictured July 26, 2021, shortly after she was installed as GG, laying flowers at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. 'Having worked with GG Simon when she was the democratically elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada from 1982 to 1989, I can attest to the fact that she cut her teeth in the Inuit world, on the international stage, and is now in a position to have extraordinary influence on the government of Canada, writes Dalee Sambo Dorough. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—This summer’s appointment of Mary Simon as Governor General—an Inuk born in Kangiqsualujjuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec—sends an important message from Canada to the international community. In sharp contrast to the current political milieu across the globe, there is no other democratically elected government on earth taking such progressive actions in relation to Indigenous human rights and representation in a politically honest and intellectually challenged manner. It has been challenged by naysayers that have criticized accommodation of Indigenous peoples’ aspirations, but resulting in the majority willing to affirm and acknowledge the status, role, and rights of Indigenous peoples, including Inuit. This is unparalleled by governments anywhere else.
Significantly, Gov. Gen. Simon approved the request on Aug. 15 of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to dissolve Parliament and hold Canada’s 44th general election on Sept. 20, 2021.
Having worked with Mary Simon when she was the democratically elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada from 1982 to 1989, I can attest to the fact that she cut her teeth in the Inuit world, on the international stage, and is now in a position to have extraordinary influence on the government of Canada, as Governor General. Yes, granted, in government of Canada textbooks the position of governor general is described as mostly ceremonial, however, she does give royal assent to legislation, and is regularly briefed on “her government.”
Mary Simon has a crucial opportunity to shape the role of the governor general in new ways, consistent with international human rights standards. As an outsider, I note that former governors-general traditionally played a colonial role that was unhelpful to Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, especially in earlier years. Today, however, new federal legislation that received royal assent in June 2021, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, explicitly repudiates colonialism in its preamble and further provides that “Nothing in this Act is to be construed as delaying the application of the Declaration in Canadian law.”
For Inuit, Gov. Gen. Simon’s position will undoubtedly enhance the visibility of Inuit and Inuit priorities. This high-profile platform provides an unprecedented opportunity to educate Canadians and the world about Inuit and Indigenous peoples in general.
In doing so, meeting regularly with the prime minister, and senior officials from the Privy Council Office, she will—by her very nature, her personal history, and lengthy career working directly with and for Inuit—be able to ask questions, and make insightful comments. I hope that Gov. Gen. Simon will exert some soft diplomacy to continue to move the bar upward. At a time when climate change rages across the globe, and the Arctic is experiencing the sharp end of this calamity the fastest, she will breathe much-needed vigour into this national and international dialogue. Clearly, other Inuit-specific or Arctic issues, such as suicide, housing, infrastructure needs, Arctic sovereignty, missing and murdered Inuit women and girls, and related concerns will be afforded an important lens by which to generate solutions in favour of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples.
Recently, Canada, as a nation, has been engaged in some heavy lifting in terms of coming to grips with its colonial past. The current political climate, with the uncovering of graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of former residential schools, is but a recent manifestation of this. When former prime minister of Canada Stephen Harper delivered an apology to residential school survivors, Mary Simon spoke in Inuktitut to vividly demonstrate that the Inuit language has survived the schools and is very much alive.
As we prepare to launch the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, it is notable that in much the same way she spoke Inuktitut in her maiden speech as Governor General on July 26. For Inuit and Indigenous peoples, globally, and despite the complaints over the fact that she doesn’t speak French, she is bilingual as an Inuktitut speaker and helping highlight Inuktitut as one of Canada’s national languages. Such action underscores the relevance of the Inuit language as a founding language of Canada and could help pave the way for greater support for it as a major language in Canada.
She is an ideal appointment to an office with colonial historical antecedents that carefully need to be bridged with the contemporary political environment. As she noted herself in her first speech, she will squarely address the ongoing need for reconciliation in Canada. I feel her appointment will allow for a deeper and perhaps a more genuine discussion about friendship, about peace, about democratic principles, and good governance. I think if we take the values of the office as espoused by the monarchy and hold Inuit and other Indigenous peoples up against that backdrop, the work Gov. Gen. Mary Simon does while in office may yield some very important measures in the decades to come.
I am certain in places such as Wellington, Canberra, Geneva, the UN Headquarters in New York, and, indeed, in Washington this appointment has been welcomed, and diplomatic notes may record that “Canada has raised the bar.” I call on other countries whose borders now divide the Inuit homeland—the U.S., Russia, and Greenland—to do the same.
Dalee Sambo Dorough, PhD, is chair of Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and is based in Anchorage, Alaska