Mary Simon installed as Canada's 30th Governor General

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By Rachel Aiello

OTTAWA -- Mary Simon became Canada’s 30th Governor General on Tuesday, in a pared-down but historic and culturally-rich ceremony.

A prominent Inuk leader and former ambassador, Simon is now the first Indigenous person to become the Queen’s representative in Canada, after spending her life playing several key roles in advancing Inuit culture, as well as social, environmental, and human rights as an advocate and negotiator.

In her first remarks in the role, Simon pledged to play a role in the rethinking she says is needed when it comes to reconciliation, to bring attention to the urgent crisis of climate change and the impacts already being felt in this country, as well as to be an advocate for equality and mental health.

“We have learned as a country that we need to learn the real history of Canada. Embracing this truth makes us stronger as a nation, unites Canadian society, and teaches our kids, that we must always do our best, especially when it is hard,” Simon said.

“As governor general, I will strive to hold together the tension of the past, with the promise of the future, in a wise and thoughtful way.”

She also stitched in moments of humour into her remarks, noting that her Inuk name, Ningiukadluk, means “bossy little old lady.”

The pared-down, pandemic-cautious ceremony took place in the Senate of Canada building in the parliamentary precinct. While typically the event would be attended by several hundred people, fewer than 50 dignitaries and guests attended in masks, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Arriving at the ceremony where a red carpet was rolled out, Simon was met with claps and cheers from a crowd of onlookers standing across Wellington Street in front of the Chateau Laurier, and was greeted with a similar response upon her departure.

In addition to the necessary pomp and official oaths and signatures overseen by senior federal officials, the event included several cultural performances and a qulliq—a traditional Inuit lamp representing light and warmth— burned throughout the ceremony.

“In Canada, perhaps more than any other place on earth, we are defined by our diversity. We're still a country that is in many ways young, and yet, Indigenous peoples have called this place home for millennia… This is a big place, it's a diverse place, so, we need people like Ms. Simon, because we need people who build bridges, and bring us together,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in remarks during the ceremony. “Your remarkable achievements are an example of what it means to build bridges in pursuit of the Canada to which we all aspire.”

Trudeau said he expects Simon to use her unique experience and perspective to help Canada navigate the future while reckoning with the realities of the past.

“In this moment of unprecedented change, of rebuilding from the pandemic, of fighting the climate crisis, of walking forward on the path of reconciliation, we need your vision of a stronger Canada for everyone. A vision, as you say, of collective progress towards building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society,” Trudeau said.

Among the notable attendees were the speakers of the House of Commons and Senate, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations RoseAnn Archibald, and President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and member of the advisory group who helped craft the shortlist of candidates for the role, Natan Obed.

While Green Party Leader Annamie Paul was present, neither Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh attended, sending MPs on their behalf.

Speaking with CTV News ahead of the ceremony, Obed described Simon as “a well-rounded, amazing, accomplished Canadian who happens to be Inuk.”

For the special day, Simon wore a dress and jacket by designer Victoria Okpik from Quartaq, Nunavik. She was the first Inuk woman to graduate in fashion design from LaSalle College in Montreal. The dress also featured symbolic beadwork by Julie Grenier, a Kuujjuaq artist and the director general of Taqramiut Nipingat Inc.

SIMON TO PLAY KEY ROLE

During her speech she reflected on being in the Senate of Canada building many years ago when another Trudeau was prime minister and it was the Government Conference Centre, where she worked to have equality rights affirmed in the constitution of Canada.

“That moment made this one possible,” she said Tuesday.

Trudeau tapped Simon for the role on July 6, and last week as governor general-designate she had her first audience with the Queen, held virtually.

As governor general, Simon will play a crucial role in constitutional matters and within minority governments when it comes to questions of confidence and calling elections, a duty she may be called to fulfill sooner rather than later with the ongoing speculation that there will be an election call in August.

She also becomes the top commander of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be responsible for reading the speech from the throne, granting royal assent so bills can become law, and swearing in cabinet members. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Simon will also now be in charge of granting that and other honours and medals to others.

'A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION'

Simon’s appointment comes amid renewed focus on Canada’s efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, prompted by the continuing discovery of unmarked graves on former residential school grounds across the country.

“The discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of residential schools in recent weeks has horrified me, along with all Canadians. A lot of people think that reconciliation will be completed through projects and services... My view is that reconciliation is a way of life, and requires work every day. Reconciliation is getting to know one another,” Simon said.

When she was named to the role, Simon said she personally doesn’t view it as a conflict to have an Indigenous representative of the Crown, and said it was a moment that she hopes all Canadians feel a part of, as it reflects a “collective progress” towards a more just society.

“It's a balance, for sure… But she can and has represented and will represent both sides. And she has the skills of diplomacy, she's got the experience as a stateswoman… It has always been a balance for Mary, and she's always represented,” said Simon’s friend, Inuk leader and former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Josie Okalik Eegeesiak during CTV News’ special coverage. “Mary is the right person at the right time for this appointment.”

She also called it “a step in the right direction.”

While Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Richard Wagner had been acting as the administrator, assuming the powers of the role without taking the official title, Simon replaces Julie Payette who resigned in January amid reports of fostering a “toxic” work environment.

Simon has faced some scrutiny for not being fluent French—after she was denied the chance to pick up the language when she attended a federal government day school until Grade 6—though she has pledged to learn and is bilingual in English and Inuktitut.

After Simon was presented with the Chancellor of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the collar denoting her as the head of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, she conducted an inspection of the guard at the National War Memorial as her first official duty.

The Governor General’s flag was raised on the Peace Tower to mark Simon’s installation, but the Canadian flag was then returned to half mast in recognition of the unmarked graves found on former sites of residential schools.

Simon and her husband Whit Fraser will be moving into Rideau Hall, the official residence of both the Canadian monarch and their representative in Ottawa, but also have plans to spend time living and working at the Citadelle residence in Quebec City.

Governors general typically serve for five or so years.

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