The appointment of Mary Simon as Governor General is a meaningful step forward for Canada

July 26, 2021

Many Canadians feel ambivalent about whether we even need a Governor General. Nevertheless, we now have a new one, and she is the first Indigenous person and the first Indigenous language speaker to hold the office — among her many qualities and qualifications.

Should we ever have a national dialogue on the future of the Office of the Governor General (to change or undo that aspect of Canada’s Constitution), we would find ourselves in another constitutional brouhaha of Meech Lake/Charlottetown Accord proportions. This is so because inevitably, every major constitutional issue would land on the table.

There isn’t necessarily a reason why the average Canadian should be schooled in the arcane area of constitutional law and convention relating to the Office of the Governor General.  However, from a constitutional perspective, the truly critical part of the role is evident in certain minority government situations when political tensions and maneuvering are high. For example, when a Prime Minister visits the Governor General to avoid losing an upcoming and dicey confidence vote, controversy can follow.  Pundits and academics then talk of “constitutional crisis”. Whole books have been devoted to this type of rare event (See for example, Russell, P. H., & Sossin, L. M. (2009). Parliamentary democracy in crisis. University of Toronto Press.)

In such situations, the fundamental question is both constitutional and political.  Did the GG do the right thing? Did the Prime Minister act appropriately?  Former GG Michaëlle Jean’s decision in 2008, after consulting superior legal counsel, to grant Prime Minister Harper’s request for prorogation has been studied in a shocking number of journal articles and media commentary. The overall consensus is that the Rt. Hon. Michaëlle Jean made the right decision in that situation. 

In Britain, such a situation was litigated in 2019 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was found to have improperly and unlawfully sought prorogation of the British Parliament from the Queen. The prorogation was found to be null and of no effect by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (R (Miller) v The Prime Minister and Cherry v Advocate General for Scotland).

I have no doubt that should such a situation arise for Governor General Mary Simon, she will acquit herself very well.  No one has suggested otherwise.  She has already demonstrated high capacity to take a legal brief on inherently complex constitutional matters, being a veteran of several constitutional wars throughout the 1980’s and 90’s (among her many accomplishments).  (Disclosure: I know this from first hand experience, having worked with her and then President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Rosemarie Kuptana. Ms. Simon and Ms. Kuptana were the two lead Inuit negotiators during the Charlottetown Accord discussions when I provided legal advice to ITK as part of a team of legal advisors.)

The departure from the relatively recent tradition of appointing someone who is fluently bilingual in both English and French has caused quite a stir.  I have confidence that the new Governor General will take the hubbub of controversy over her “qualifications” in stride. Among her most notable qualities is she is not in any way given to drama and for good measure, she does not shirk work.  She will give Canada her very best every single day.  She may even guide us as we continue to search elusively for that essence of Canadian identity that we like so very much to debate.  We apparently have the time to indulge in this esoteric preoccupation – despite other problems like the world burning up, homelessness and child poverty.

What most Canadians do see, is the public aspect of the role which, on its face, involves an extraordinary amount of ‘ribbon cutting’ type work – but all in aid of recognizing the achievements of individual Canadians and to buttress our constant search for, and evolving sense of, “Canadian identity”.  There is another tranche of State work, representing Canada abroad from time to time.

If it is any comfort at all to Ms. Simon, looking at past Governor Generals (and particularly women but not exclusively women office holders) it seems there is never, or rarely, anyone who is quite good enough or perfect enough to be the Governor General.

We apparently can’t stop ourselves from picking away at accomplished people in public life after we invest time in building them up. In Ms. Simon’s case, it’s not enough that she overcame what was a crushingly Eurocentric, racist education system and still somehow emerged with her mother tongue, Inuktitut intact. Ms. Simon who has devoted her life to public service, has over-reached in the eyes of some because she is not a fluent speaker of French. 

French-English bilingualism in the institutions of government is important for continued peace in that aspect of Canada’s national identity. However, equally important and more neglected is the respectful acknowledgement and holding up of Indigenous peoples’ cultures, languages, laws, values and contribution to peace in this country.  Why aren’t Indigenous peoples languages recognized as official languages, as so many have asked? If we are to “investigate” the process of appointment respecting the French-English bilingualism criteria, then let us also have a process to explore why Inuktitut and other Indigenous languages are not in some way or another official languages of the country; and why fluency in an Indigenous language is not a requirement for holding the office of Governor General. 

Canada has made some strides. Witness the debate over allowing Indigenous Members of Parliament to speak their own languages and have them translated simultaneously in the House of Commons. Those who argued against that advance as impractical, lost the debate. We have moved on and now Indigenous Members of Parliament and Canada have that wonderful recognition and space for the first languages of this land.

The search for a more fulsome inclusive Canadian identity isn’t a contest. It isn’t a zero-sum game. If the incumbent of the Office of the Governor General is fluent in one official language and an Indigenous language, we all win.  

Let’s keep going. Let’s look forward without fear.