Simon’s appointment represents hope and change

Hill Times July 12, 2021

Mary Simon’s appointment represents the type of change required for reconciliation. Known as simply Mary to many Inuit, the position of governor general is in a long list of firsts for her life’s achievements.

There are two special accomplishments built in the appointment of governor general. Obviously, it is a first for reconciliation to have an Indigenous governor general. The role of governor general doesn’t have full support across the Indigenous population in Canada, just as it does not have full support in the non-Indigenous population in Canada. But even if the role is mostly symbolic, it holds special significance for Indigenous peoples that one of our own is in the chair. But the role can be wielded in ways that influences national discourse, and there is no doubt that Simon has the skill to do just that. Indigenous kids will have a strong role model in Mary Simon on how to change the world.

I personally look forward to the first diplomatic event in which Inuit culture is front and centre. It’s about time. This is the second aspect of her appointment to governor general which is so special.  First Nations in Canada tend to get the lion’s share of attention and Inuit are rarely out in front.  And we all lose out when Inuit are not heard. Despite the label of “Indigenous” which includes us all, it’s rare that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis agree on anything, or for one group to publicly stand up for another group. Reconciliation within Indigenous peoples might be about our internal work to get over the sense of competition and divides what we have maintained. It was the federal government that historically inflamed competition for funding between Inuit, Métis and First Nations, and by the very act, of forcing us to pick one of those labels. Let’s be real—of course it’s possible to have two or perhaps even all three represented in one family’s ancestry. Sometimes Indigenous peoples maintain the artificiality of labels. Perhaps one of our pieces of reconciliation work is to rebuild the old ways of reciprocity between communities.

The muted and negative responses in Quebec about Simon’s appointment are somewhat galling, and here’s why.

Reconciliation should not be assumed to be an add-on, a nice-to-have bow on top of what we call Canada. Reconciliation should not be defined as the easy stuff we can do without changing laws or without changing who we think we are as a country. The inequalities facing Indigenous peoples will not be fixed with superficialities and nice talk. That would be a dramatic mistake and would enshrine the inequalities for more generations of Indigenous kids.

Reconciliation is about changing the core of who we think we are in Canada. The country and settler ancestors did some pretty horrible things to Indigenous peoples, and today’s systems haven’t changed much. Yet. The point of telling history in its fullness is to reduce the risk of repeating history. Therefore reconciliation is by definition serious change: changing laws, structures, and systems. We do these changes to ensure full inclusion of Indigenous peoples in all that we call Canada. We do these changes to ensure that Indigenous peoples are never at risk again of losing their children to institutions and mass graves.

We work to change systems. We work to change expectations. This is how reconciliation is achieved—we set the expectation that, no matter the sector, no matter the work that Indigenous peoples are involved in, they will receive benefit from, and succeed in as much as any other group in Canada. We expect that Indigenous peoples will lead the country.

So of course things will have to change. That is what reconciliation means. Every system and structure is up for review, is targeted for improvement to ensure and to enshrine full Indigenous inclusion and voice. One can hope that reconciliation doesn’t get lost in translation.