Canada names Mary Simon first indigenous governor general

Appointment to largely ceremonial post comes as Canada grapples with racist past

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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 Trudeau told a news conference. “I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment.”

Ms Simon, a former journalist and advocate for indigenous rights, has previously served as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organisation.

She was also president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents Inuit in all Arctic countries.

And she has been credited with helping negotiate a 1975 deal between Cree, Inuit and Quebec's provincial government, described as Canada's first modern treaty with First Nations.

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 children were forcibly enrolled in 139 residential schools run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the government.

More than 4,000 pupils 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 a suspected backlash, more than a dozen churches across the country have been burnt in recent weeks and statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria, who reigned over Canada when the first residential schools were opened, were torn down by protesters.

Mr Trudeau last month apologised for the “incredibly harmful government policy” of assimilation.

Canada's national holiday on July 1 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, Ms Simon attended a day school similar to the residential schools.

“We need to [pause], to fully recognise and memorialise and come to terms with the atrocities of our collective past that we are learning more about each day,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

Ms Simon replaces former astronaut Julie Payette, who resigned in January amid accusations of harassment and behaviour described in a report as “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations".

The country's Supreme Court chief justice had taken over the mostly ceremonial role in the interim.

Fluent in English and Inuktitut, the principal Inuit language in Canada, Ms Simon she hoped in the role of governor general to bring together all Canadians “to understand our unique histories, our unique culture and our way of life".

She said her appointment marks “a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation".

“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 an equitable society,” she said.

Updated: July 06, 2021, 10:39 PM