'Lack of respect': Indigenous leaders slam Legault for criticizing governor general's French

Indigenous leaders are accusing the premier of Quebec of "belittling" Canada's first Inuk governor general by publicly attacking her French-language skills after the two met on Wednesday.

In a press scrum following Gov. Gen. Mary Simon's first official visit to Quebec, Premier François Legault told reporters Thursday morning that while her appointment last summer is a "positive" step toward reconciliation, "it's really not ideal that she doesn't speak French."

He said Simon has "more work to do" on the language.

"But she tells me that she is taking personal lessons, and she was still able, at the beginning, to say a few sentences in French," he added later.

The premier said he met with Simon, the Queen's representative in Canada, as a "courtesy" even though he believes her position, and that of lieutenant-governor, should be abolished.

"Why do we have to do that when there's no point to say those things? For me, it's a lack of respect," Sen. Michèle Audette of Quebec told CTV News.

Sen. Audette, the daughter of a Quebecer father and an Innu mother, said Simon is bilingual because she speaks English and Inuktitut, "and in my book, the Indigenous languages are part of the official languages."

"I openly said when she was appointed — and if we meet in Quebec — I hope that we can have conversation also in French, but I wouldn't say to the media, 'Well, her French wasn't that great… I would say instead, 'I see improvement. I see that she's trying,'" the senator said.

"As a premier, I believe it would be the way we should say things to encourage… reconciliation, or nation to nation," she added.

"I think those comments would have been more constructive and more appropriate."

Simon's appointment caused an uproar since she didn't speak both languages enshrined in the Official Languages Act at the time.

In fact, more than 400 complaints were filed with Canada's official languages watchdog in the weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the position.

“In my opinion, this demonstrates that linguistic duality continues to be an important value for Canadians," wrote commissioner Raymond Théberge in a statement on July 19, 2021.

"We have analyzed the complaints received to date and have determined that they are admissible. I will therefore be investigating the matter."

Simon, who was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, attended a federal government day school as a child, where she was prevented from speaking her mother tongue, Inuktitut. She has also said she was denied the chance at those schools to learn French.

Notably, she did speak French, English and Inuktitut in her inaugural Speech from the Throne on Nov. 23.

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said she was "appalled" when she read what the premier said of the governor general.

"She is trying to learn French, so she is making an effort to learn the language. And I don't know what he [Legault] is doing to learn Inuktitut," she said in an interview Thursday. 

Quebec Premier still has work to do to improve his Inuktitut

— Nakuset S (@NakusetS) May 5, 2022

"So it's just really glaring that someone in a position of power like a premier can easily make demeaning comments like that. I was really pretty shocked by it."

It wasn't only Legault's comments about the meeting that raised some eyebrows. Opposition MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he had better things to do "than meet the representative of the Queen of England."

In a tweet, he later said, "Colonialism and cucumber sandwiches aren't really my thing." 

Le colonialisme et les sandwichs aux concombres, c’est pas vraiment mon truc. https://t.co/5L0Gu7uu6N

— Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (@GNadeauDubois) May 5, 2022

"What's he talking about colonialism? This is a woman that lived through colonialism and still is. So does he really think that he's in the same place as she is in terms of colonialism?" Nakuset said.

"Walk a mile in our moccasins before you talk about colonialism."

— With files from The Canadian Press

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