Governor General says protests ‘changed’ Canada, focusing on healing divisions

By The Canadian Press

As a girl in Nunavik in the 1950s, Mary Simon and her friends chattered cheerfully on their way to elementary school, just like other children. But, unlike most other kids, they grew silent as they reached the schoolyard.

Inuit languages were banned at Kuujjuaq federal day school in northern Quebec and Simon recalls being punished “many times” for speaking Inuktitut rather than English in the classroom.

“From grade one to grade six we were not allowed to speak our language on school property or in the classroom or in school at all,” she said in an interview.

More than six decades later, as Governor General of Canada, Simon delivered the throne speech not just in the country’s official languages, English and French, but in Inuktitut, a groundbreaking moment in Canadian history.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her to the role last year and she moved into Rideau Hall, the grand official residence in Ottawa. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, she plays not only a key ceremonial role, but serves as an apolitical figurehead for the country.

The 95-year-old Queen recently tested positive for COVID-19 and Simon said Canadians all “wish her well.”

“I know that all Canadians join me in wishing Her Majesty good health and a swift recovery from her recent illness,” she said.

Simon also contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, which she said she only had for a week with mild symptoms, thanks to having been vaccinated.

“I am fully vaccinated and encourage everyone to get vaccinated. I think getting vaccinated is the best way to fight COVID so we can return to a more normal life,” she said.

Though she rises above party politics, the politics of vaccinations came to her front door this month after the so-called Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa and stayed.

One of the protest’s organizing groups called Canada Unity published a “memorandum of understanding” calling for the Senate and Governor General to overrule all levels of government and revoke COVID-19 restrictions.

Her office was also inundated with emails from people trying to register a no-confidence vote in the government with her, after mistakenly believing that her office had the power to unilaterally dissolve Parliament.

Rideau Hall was forced to post a message on Twitter to counter the “misinformation” on social media encouraging Canadians to cast a non-confidence vote.

The statement pointed out that “no such registry or process exists.”

Simon said she did not get involved in the politics of the protests, or meet any of the protesters, although she was kept closely informed of the tumultuous events on her doorstep.

The Governor General said Canada “has been changed by this major event.”

She said she is “very saddened by some of the events that have taken place especially some of the things that happened at the National War Memorial,” in an apparent reference to a video showing someone dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

She said Canadians are “frustrated and upset because we have had to live a very different life for over two years.”

Although the protest started out about vaccinations, it “became much bigger than that,” she said.

The protesters were not a homogeneous mass, she said, but included many groupings, including people “opposed to vaccines and … other people that want to overthrow the government.”

“Overthrowing the government in this way is not something Canada does,” she declared.

Her focus now is on healing fault lines and divisions that have emerged in Canada, which includes speaking to the broad range of people involved in the protests.

During her career, including as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council, Simon developed a reputation as a bridge-builder between people with sharply opposing views.

Though she says she is personally in favour of “following the science” and getting vaccinated, she stops short of judging the protesters.

“I don’t feel is anyone is wrong particularly, but there is a very strong difference of opinion about what is going on,” the former diplomat remarked.

She said the country need to take a look at “bringing Canadians together to discuss how we can work and come together as a nation and look forward.”

“I am a bridge between Canadians from different experiences,” she said. “Encouraging different points of view has been central to my work, not just here at Rideau Hall but throughout my life’s work,” she said.

She said the fact that Canadians have a diversity of experience and opinions makes the country stronger “when we are respectful of each other.”

But respect “is something we really have to work on in the next months and probably years,” she believes.

Recently the Governor General surprised members of the public by phoning them directly with a “kindness call,” a CBC Ottawa initiative she liked so much she decided to continue herself.

With the calls she hopes to inspire Canadians to “ajuinnata,” an Inuktitut concept that means a promise, a vow to never give up.

“I think kindness should be a way of life. I think it is really important — even when you disagree with somebody — you should always be kind,” she said.

The Governor General is optimistic that fractures that have emerged in Canadian society in recent weeks can be healed.

For all those at loggerheads, she offers some advice, honed from decades of diplomacy.

“You don’t have to be obnoxious about a disagreement,” she said. “If you walk away from it, you can wait until a later date to have another discussion and maybe that one will be more fruitful.”

An essential part of building a more inclusive society, she said, is allowing people to speak in their mother tongue and “fostering respect” for them.

Simon, the first Indigenous Governor General, recalled a time when, because Inuit names were considered difficult to pronounce, Inuit people were also assigned a number.

“That was how to identify Inuit across the Arctic,” she said.

Only now are Canadians learning about deliberate attempts to erase Indigenous languages at residential schools, she said.

They are also “learning the truth about these children who were torn from their homes and thrust into very unfamiliar worlds where threats of violence were used to erase their identity.”

She said Canadians everywhere “share in the heartbreak and sorrow of the First Nations” following the discoveries of unmarked graves of children attending residential schools.

“It seems like the country has woken up to a reality that may have not been known by Canadians,” she said.

Ensuring Indigenous people today do not have to revert to French or English to access basic services in their communities is “really important,” she said.

Simon is fluently bilingual in Inuktitut and English but has had to learn French so she can deliver addresses as Governor General in both official languages, and speak to francophone Canadians in their native tongue.

To do this, the 74-year-old grandmother has been taking French lessons, where she practises reading and conversation and studies the structure of the language every week.

“I have a tutor and I take lessons three times a week … for about an hour and a half,” she said. “My tutor says I’m doing well.”

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