For months, Canada has been searching for a new governor general. While a historic appointment, the federal government was always going to ask a lot from Julie Payette’s successor.
Justin Trudeau’s government needed someone who could reflect its maturity on matters of state — a recognition that perhaps, in Payette, it failed. The government also needed someone who could provide moral leadership as commander-in-chief to an armed forces amid an identity crisis and someone who could speak credibly and publicly about Canada’s ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples.
By all counts, Mary Simon is an excellent choice.
Problems within the hierarchy
Not that her task ahead is easy: Simon has the unenviable job of breathing fresh life into the governor general’s office, which was maligned during Payette’s tenure.
But for all the damage inflicted upon it, other more striking problems exist lower down the hierarchy. A peak behind the curtain at Rideau Hall reveals it is struggling to join a broader reckoning over systemic racism in Canada and how that manifests within the office itself.
It’s unclear whether the new bureaucratic appointments to manage the office that supports the governor general are any more adept than their predecessors at addressing societal questions of class and race. These are questions we should expect any governor general and the office to answer.
Last year, as politicians across Canada struggled to navigate the widespread fury over George Floyd’s murder in the United States, many took issue with the fact there is systemic racism in this country, and former governor general Michaëlle Jean took them to task.
As a settler researcher who studies the Crown and its representatives (like the governor general) in the context of reconciliation, I would expect Simon to be equally unequivocal.
Conforming to neutrality?
The easiest way to undermine the symbolic significance of her appointment would be to insist she conform to the position’s informal rules of whiteness or versions of its coded language of “apolitical” and “neutrality.”
She will need competent staff who can support her resistance to these internal and external pressures. To expect Simon’s neutrality on the question of the Crown’s dishonourable relations with Indigenous nations and people would be emblematic of Canada’s hugely unsatisfactory approach to reconciliation.
Canada’s poor record on reconciliation has provoked criticisms of having an Indigenous representative of the Crown, citing its potential to be a tokenistic gesture unlikely to bring transformational change.
First Indigenous governor general
As someone who negotiated her community’s quasi entry into Canadian Confederation — and then quite literally sat around the table as the country’s modern constitution was written — Simon has a particular vision of Canada, her place in it and that of her people.
The emphasis placed on the significance of Simon’s appointment as the first Inuk governor general illustrates the glorious purpose with which she has been burdened.
Not because it will give the federal government cause to stop its legal actions against Indigenous youth or finally put an end to boil-water advisories or even abandon the principle of terra nullius — a prerequisite to reconciliation according to both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Her appointment reinforces the notion that the definition of who, and what, Canada is, is not yet settled. While Canada may have found a new governor general, Simon may find herself in search of a Canada.
The office of the governor general is political
The mixed and, perhaps more tellingly, muted responses from Indigenous people are a good reminder to settlers of the multiculturalism of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the diversity of the relationships among their nations and the Crown.
To some, Canada is the ideal of the space in which territories and sovereignties can be shared among Indigenous nations and the settler state — despite its heinous crimes against Indigenous Peoples.
For others, Canada is not a country to which they belong or want to belong; they are already members of sovereign nations in this territory. The governor general therefore represents a terrible treaty partner wrapped in a settler colonialist project that has continually sought to destroy their governance structures, legal systems, cultural practices, livelihoods and lives. No Indigenous governor general will change that.
Perhaps the greater significance of Simon’s appointment is the reminder that the office of governor general is political.
Its daily functions may be largely ceremonial, and it may not engage in partisan politics, but the office of governor general is by no means politically neutral. How can it be? The Crown is the source of power and legitimacy for all branches of state in Canada.
What Canada does Simon represent as GG?
Reconciliation asks us what we are prepared to give up, as a partner in this deep, broken relationship, to make it right.
Judging from the reactions to Simon’s linguistic capacities — she is bilingual but speaks Inuktitut, not French — it appears the Canadian definition of bilingualism won’t be conceded in the pursuit of reconciliation.
Would we accept a governor general removing a prime minister for treaty violations the way we would expect them to remove a prime minister for refusing to hold elections? Why not?
It may be challenging for Canadians to wrap our heads around the concept of peoples living in this territory, with inherent rights (through their own treaties) to water and land that we do not possess, not wanting to be part of this country — and even seemingly undermining it by blocking major economic and industrial projects.
I do not know how Simon will resolve these tensions, but we will soon have a governor general whose entire career has been in service of nation-building. The esteem that people engaged in reconciliation work hold for her gives me reason to be cautiously optimistic that she will be successful in her most challenging diplomatic mission yet.
Robert Tay-Burroughs's research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Leonard and Kathleen O'Brien Humanitarian Trust through the O'Brien Foundation.