Inuit leaders are "thrilled" with the appointment of one of their own as the new governor general.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially appointed Mary Simon, an Inuk woman, as the new official representative of the Queen.
“We are honoured to have Ms. Simon as Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General,” said Trudeau.
“Canada is a big country. Canada is a diverse country. So it is only by reaching out to those around us, it is only by building bridges between people in the north and the south, just like in the east and west, that we can truly move forward. Mary Simon has done that throughout her life. I know she will help continue paving that path ahead and we will all be stronger for it.”
Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president, was present at the announcement.
“I was just so thrilled. It was quite emotional actually to hear her speak in Inuktitut and that being the first thing that she was introducing herself to Canadians with,” said Obed.
“It got me emotional,” agreed Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI).
“Anytime as an Indigenous person, as an Inuk, we utter anything in our language, that's an act of self-determination. We’re asserting our self-determination. So for her to be standing beside the Prime Minister of this nation, to speak Inuktut and unapologetically, I think will absolutely have an impact on how people think about Indigenous languages, but more specifically Inuktut,” said Kotierk.
Both Kotierk and Obed are strong advocates for Inuktut (refers to all the Inuit languages of which Inuktitut is one) to be given official language status within the Inuit homeland of Nunangat. Almost 85 per cent of Inuit in Nunangat speak Inuktut and it is an official language in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and an official administrative language of the Nunatsiavut government.
Although the position of governor general is primarily symbolic, both presidents hold that the exposure Canadians will get to the Inuit language through an English-Inuktut bilingual Simon can’t be understated.
“I think what it signals is … that (the appointment) doesn't fit into the rigid it-needs-to-be-bilingual-French-and-English. So there's an openness…and maybe it will soften the very rigid— and I would say false—narrative that Canada is based on a bilingual and bicultural nation,” said Kotierk.
Obed points out that previous governors general have supported Indigenous endeavours. Julie Payette, who resigned from the position this past January in controversy after serving less than half of her five-year term, spoke a few sentences in Algonquin when she was sworn in. Adrienne Clarkson (1999-2005) advocated for Indigenous languages while Michaëlle Jean (2005-2010) has a foundation that includes programs targeting excluded and marginalized youth.
“This office has played a very positive role towards the recognition of Indigenous peoples and our rights, our language, our culture and society and now Mary is the embodiment in that she's the living expression of the Inuit society, culture in the role of the governor general… speaking in our language as official orders of business in the country,” said Obed.
He adds that Trudeau may have selected an Inuk for the position to demonstrate his oft-stated comment that Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples is its most important, but Trudeau’s decision goes beyond tokenism.
“On this particular appointment, he got it right and for the right reasons,” said Obed.
Simon has a strong resume, which includes serving as Canadian ambassador to Denmark, as well as for Circumpolar Affairs. She has also held leadership positions in the ITK, Makivik Corporation, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and was founding chair of the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation. She is from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, and an Officer of the Order of Canada. She is the recipient of the National Order of Quebec, the Gold Order of Greenland, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Gold Order of the Canadian Geographic Society, the Symons Medal, and the Governor General's Northern Award.
Kotierk understands that the institute of the governor general, like that of the Senate, faces the “broader question” of dismantlement, but she says that doesn’t diminish the pride Inuit hold in Simon’s appointment. She also doesn’t believe that having an Indigenous person representing the Queen is a conflict, especially an Inuk as “the experiences that we have had are quite different from First Nations and Métis.”
Kotierk pointed to former ITK president Jose Kusugak, who defined Inuit patriotism by stating Inuit were “first Canadians, Canadians first.”
“So I don't think it's such a big deal in that sense,” said Kotierk.
In her acceptance speech, Simon said her appointment “(reflected) our collective progress towards building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society” and was a “historic and inspirational moment for Canada, and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation.”
The governor general’s constitutional duties include serving as commander-in-chief and representing Canada at home and abroad.
Obed doesn’t believe Simon will face conflict in carrying out her duties. He’s confident that she has a good handle on her job description and considered it carefully before she accepted the position.
“I don't think that she's going to be asked to do the government’s colonial bidding when it comes to actively saying no to Indigenous peoples’ rights in certain areas or to be involved in court cases that involve Indigenous peoples. The closest I believe she will come to any of this is by signing legislation that may not be legislation that all Indigenous peoples are supportive of,” said Obed.
Simon’s new role harkens Kotierk to the days when she first saw Simon. At that time, Kotierk was a “shy, impressionable young person” and Simon was the ambassador of Circumpolar Affairs.
“I was just watching and thinking, ‘Wow,’ and the imagination of a young Inuk that I too could one day be an ambassador and thinking about the possibilities. It was that same kind of feeling watching her be named as a Governor General-designate. It ignited the spark of possibilities for young Inuit to say, ‘Wow, we can aim for things that maybe we hadn’t imagined for ourselves,’” she said.
While Obed applauded Trudeau’s choice, he also said, “There's still a long ways to go (and) there are struggles along the way that (Indigenous people are) going to be very vocal about.”
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com