Canada names Mary Simon first indigenous governor general

·3-min read

Canada named Mary Simon on Tuesday as its first indigenous governor general -- Queen Elizabeth II's official representative in the Commonwealth country -- as the nation faces a reckoning with its colonial history.

"Today, after 154 years, our country takes a historic step," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference. "I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment."

Simon, a former broadcast journalist, diplomat and advocate of indigenous rights, has previously served as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization.

She was also leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents Inuit in all Arctic countries, as well as Canada's first Inuk ambassador in Denmark.

Her appointment as viceregal representative, responsible for giving royal assent or making acts passed by parliament law, as well as heading Canada's military, comes at a difficult period in the country's relations with First Nations.

The discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked pupils' graves at former indigenous residential schools has convulsed Canada, provoking anger and grief in indigenous communities.

Until the 1990s, some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youngsters were forcibly enrolled in 139 residential schools run by the Catholic church on behalf of the government.

More than 4,000 students died of disease and neglect.

Others have recounted physical and sexual abuses by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen churches across Canada have been burned, and statues of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria, who reigned over the country when the first residential schools were opened in the late 1800s, were torn down by protestors.

Tuesday afternoon, Trudeau visited the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan where the Cowessess First Nation announced last month it found 751 unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar mapping.

"It is shameful that here in Cowessess, and across the country, children died because of the harmful policy of residential schools," said Trudeau.

- 'Know where home is' -

At a ceremony with tribal dancers, he also signed a first-of-its-kind deal that will see the Cowessess take back from federal welfare agencies jurisdiction over its children.

"Every day we will roll up our sleeves to make sure that every child, when we call them home, that they know where home is, and that is Cowessess First Nation," Chief Cadmus Delorme said.

The prime minister apologized last month for the policy of assimilation, and urged Pope Francis to do the same.

Canada's national holiday on July 1 this year was also muted as indigenous leaders called for reflection instead of celebration.

Born in 1947 in Kuujjuaq, a small hamlet on the coast of Ungava Bay, Simon attended a day school similar to the controversial indigenous boarding schools.

"We need to (pause), to fully recognize and memorialize and come to terms with the atrocities of our collective past that we are learning more about each day," she told reporters on Tuesday.

One of her first official tasks, however, might be to dissolve parliament and trigger snap elections as early as September, as Trudeau's minority Liberal government increasingly butts heads with opposition parties.

Simon replaces Trudeau's first nominee to the post, Canada's former chief astronaut Julie Payette who resigned in January amid accusations of harassment and behavior described in a report as "yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations."

Payette's sudden departure reignited a debate about the role of the monarchy in Canada, with slightly more than half of respondents in recent polls favoring abolishing the position of governor general.

Simon, who is fluent in English and Inuktitut (the principal Inuit language in Canada), said she hoped in the role to bring together all Canadians "to understand our unique histories, our unique culture, and our way of life."

"This is a moment that I hope all Canadians feel part of because my appointment reflects our collective progress towards building a more inclusive, just and equitable society," she said.