A rush of pride flowed through Natan Obed as Mary Simon took her oath of office, becoming the country’s 30th governor general, first Inuk and first Indigenous person from any nation to hold the post.
“I was so proud not just for Inuit, but also for First Nations and Métis,” Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told APTN News after the ceremony.
It was a ceremony punctuated at every turn by reminders of Indigenous resurgence and survival. Simon was greeted by Algonquin Anishinaabe drummers and serenaded by modern artists as a soapstone qulliq lamp burned in the Senate.
“All of that set this wonderful stage of inclusion of Indigenous people that was remarkable. You think about these institutions, and they’re not made for Indigenous people. That’s for certain,” Obed said. “I think this is legitimate, I don’t think this is tokenism.”
For him it was a moment of hope and optimism tempered slightly by concern the expectations placed on Simon, as the first Indigenous head of a colonial state, may be too high.
She is now the queen’s representative in Canada and the commander in chief of the armed forces. Her responsibilities include giving royal assent that turns bills into new laws, dissolving Parliament when an election is called — something largely speculated to be on the horizon in the fall — and promoting Canadian interests abroad.
Simon held Obed’s post as ITK president for two terms beginning in 2006, and he believes the veteran diplomat, administrator and politician is up to the task.
“Absolutely this is a constitutional monarchy and it is colonial,” Obed said. “As somebody who’s gone through the constitutional repatriation talks, who’s been an Inuk leader for the better part of 40 years, she understands to her core the way in which Canada has abused human rights, has been a colonial institution.”
David Chartrand, Métis National Council vice president, was brimming with pride too as he watched the newly installed governor general emerge from the upper chamber.
“Her past experience will definitely help her a lot. I was proud to hear the first time the governor general speaking Inuktitut inside the Senate. It was great to see,” said Chartrand. “The Métis Nation echoes strong sentiments of pride to her.”
Both leaders commended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for selecting Simon. Trudeau took heat in Parliament when former governor general Julie Payette stepped down after an external probe found she presided over a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall.
Trudeau said Simon brings the right vision to the job as the country navigates overlapping crises like the pandemic and climate change. He praised her as a selfless leader and builder of bridges.
“You remind us that true leadership is not measured in the honours or distinctions stacked up behind someone’s name, although today you take on yet another title among many,” he said. “Rather true leadership is measured in what you do for those around you.”
Simon pledged to continue building bridges as she takes on her new role and won’t have to wait long for the opportunity. She is already facing concerns in the form of complaints about her inability to speak French.
Simon spoke French in her address and promised to do what she can to learn. Both Obed and Chartrand criticized the complaints.
“What if we told you, ‘You don’t speak our Indigenous language, you can’t come to our country.’ How would you feel?” said Chartrand. “I think people should give her the time and she will learn French, without doubt. But Indigenous languages are before French and English in this country.”
Obed called the criticisms “disheartening.” He explained that Simon attended a federally run day school in Nunavik in northern Quebec that didn’t offer education in French. He said that, at the time, the provincial government didn’t offer any services whatsoever to Inuit in that region.
“There is a history in Quebec that leads to Mary Simon presenting in the way she presents today, and it’s unfortunate that people don’t know that part of it,” Obed said. “That’s a part of the colonial history that you didn’t hear in there today but really Mary was shaped by.”
Simon’s installation comes as AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald settles into her role in Ottawa. She too made history earlier this month when she became the first woman elected to head the organization.
Archibald was in attendance and greeted Simon in the Senate but was unavailable for comment.