Gov. Gen. Mary Simon says Canadians have sent her a clear message that reconciliation is at the top of a “chain” of issues she should address during her term as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
In an interview that aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, the recently installed Governor General said she saw the issues of reconciliation, mental health, climate change, youth issues and education as linked, and they would be her focus over the next five years.
Addressing reconciliation specifically, she said there had been a shift in Canadian society such that “we’re willing to look at the truth” when it comes to Canada’s history with residential schools. She said that was reflected in countless messages she received following her appointment.
“I think the day they found those unmarked graves of children that died at residential schools, that was the day the wound really opened up,” she told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.
Despite the fact that deaths of students had been recorded during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s process, Simon said the discovery of the graves “told the story in a very open way” that “made people realize more and more that this is something we can’t hide.”
She said her role was not a political one, but she was able to help people understand the issue and how they could bring about change.
Simon was appointed as Governor General in July, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold the position. An Inuk from Kuujjuaq in northeastern Quebec, she had previously served on the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Arctic Council and as ambassador to Denmark.
Wait-and-see attitude on papal visit
Simon told Barton about her time as an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and her own experience as a child.
Her family was deemed ineligible to be educated under the federal residential school system, she said, and that led to her father needing to do a great deal of homeschooling.
She also wasn’t allowed to speak Inuktitut during her time at federal day schools.
“That was kind of the beginning of where I thought things weren’t right. Something was not right, not fair or not right.”
Simon speaks Inuktitut and English, but after her appointment some criticized her lack of proficiency in French. She said she understood the concern, and noted she is taking lessons two or three times a week.
“At my age, it might be a little bit more difficult,” she said.
Simon also addressed an upcoming papal visit to Canada, the date of which is not yet set.
Pope Francis has accepted an invitation from Canadian bishops to come to the country, while a delegation of Indigenous leaders is also set to meet with him in December.
At the time of the announcement in late October, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said she expects the Pope to deliver a “long overdue” apology to residential school survivors.
Simon was part of a delegation to Rome in 2009, which led then-Pope Benedict XVI to express “sorrow” over abuses at church-run residential schools in Canada.
But Indigenous leaders have said that is not enough and argued for a formal apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in the system.
Simon said she is adopting a wait-and-see attitude, given the lack of details around the visit.
“If he’s coming here to apologize, that would be very different than just maybe a state dinner where he would be speaking to individuals.”
Changes at Rideau Hall
She was also asked about the work culture at Rideau Hall under her tenure.
Her predecessor, Julie Payette, was accused of creating a toxic work environment, as first reported by CBC News and described in a third-party report. Payette resigned after the report was completed.
Simon said she was not going to comment on the past, but said things were going “really well” and she had been proactive about making changes that would “help everyone come back into Rideau Hall with a very positive outlook.”
You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.