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Liberal MPs call on PM to choose first indigenous governor general in name of ‘reconciliation’

By Marco Vigliotti      

Members of the Liberals' indigenous caucus want Justin Trudeau to replace the departing David Johnston with the country's first indigenous GG.

Four members of the Liberal Party's indigenous caucus are publicly calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to nominate Canada's first indigenous governor general later this year. They are, from left, Dan Vandal, Marc Serré, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and Michael McLeod. The Hill Times photographs by Sam Garcia, Jake Wright, and photograph courtesy of Bernard Thibodeau
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Indigenous Liberal MPs are urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to nominate for appointment Canada’s first governor general of First Nations, Métis, or Inuit descent, which they say would honour the spirit of reconciliation with the country’s First Peoples.

I think if the next governor general was an indigenous person, it would be incredibly significant for Canada,” said Liberal MP Dan Vandal (Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, Man.), a member of the party’s nine-member indigenous caucus.

“It would be a real act of reconciliation with the highest levels.”

Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) is widely rumoured to be close to publicly announcing his pick to succeed David Johnston as the Queen’s representative in Canada, whose extended term in Rideau Hall is set to conclude in September. Many observers believe the appointment was discussed when Mr. Trudeau met with the Queen in Scotland earlier this month. The Queen, the country’s head of state, appoints her representative in Canada on the advice of the prime minister.

But as speculation grows, so too have public calls to appoint the first indigenous governor general in Canada’s history, as the prime minister looks to recast the oft-contentious relationship between the federal government and the country’s First Peoples.

Members of the Indigenous Liberal Caucus and other MPs and cabinet ministers pose at the commemoration of the old U.S. Embassy in downtown Ottawa as an indigenous space on June 21. They are, from back left: Liberals Ahmed Hussen, Don Rusnak (partially hidden), Independent MP Hunter Tootoo, Liberals Amarjeet Sohi, Vance Badawey, and Michael McLeod; middle, from left: Liberals Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Yvonne Jones, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Marc Serré, and Dan Vandal; front, from left: Liberals Kim Rudd and Darren Fisher. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre, Man.), an indigenous caucus member, said he believes the appointment of an indigenous governor general would signal that the country’s highest bodies are changing to better reflect the entire nation.

“I don’t think at this point in time, our Canadian institutions like Parliament, House of Commons, the Senate, the governor general have been representative of everyone in this country,” he said.

“I think at the end of the day, it would be very good if at the top there was someone who could, at least symbolically, be able to say the Canadian state is changing, because I think it is.”

Mr. Vandal pointed to the appointment of fellow Métis Yvon Dumont as Manitoba’s lieutenant governor, the provincial equivalent of the governor general, as having a profound effect on him as a young city councillor in Winnipeg in the 1990s.

Although the governor general has powers such as dismissing the prime minister, dissolving Parliament, and delaying royal assent, which is the necessary final stage for a bill to be passed, in practice, the governor general plays a mostly ceremonial role, largely abiding by the wishes of the prime minister and government of the time.

From 1867 to 1931, Canada’s governor general was selected exclusively by the king or queen of the United Kingdom and was always a British aristocrat. In 1931, the Canadian government won the right to make recommendations to the Crown for the role.

But it was only in 1952 that the prime minister recommended a single name for the position, Vincent Massey, without first consulting with his British counterpart, setting a precedent for the appointment that continues to this day. Since that time, all governors general have been and are required to be Canadian citizens.

According to the Library of Parliament, the governor general currently receives an annual salary of $290,060.

Mr. Johnston, an academic and university administrator, was appointed to a five-year term as governor general in 2010 by then-prime minister Stephen Harper. His term was extended by two years in 2015.  

The appointment followed the decades-old tradition of rotating between an anglophone and francophone governor general, with Mr. Johnston succeeding Haitian-born journalist and filmmaker Michaëlle Jean.

Liberal group suggested indigenous inclusion in GG rotation

At the 2016 convention in Winnipeg, the Liberal Party’s Indigenous Peoples’ Commission, which says it represents and promotes the interests of indigenous Liberal members, put forward a policy resolution to include indigenous people in the governor general appointment rotation. But since it wasn’t deemed a priority resolution, it didn’t come up for a vote at the final plenary.

The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t directly respond to questions about whether Mr. Trudeau supported the resolution or if he would nominate an indigenous person to the post, saying only that the government is looking to nominate a governor general who “embodies Canadian values” and will “inspire Canadians from all walks of life.” 

The National Post recently reported that the Trudeau government had settled on its choice for the new governor general and it’s not an indigenous person.

Liberal MP Michael McLeod (Northwest Territories) said he and other members of the indigenous caucus have “informally” discussed the appointment, though no official declaration was passed to the prime minister.

It would be “very beneficial” for indigenous youth, he said, to have a role model in the “high, prestige” position of the governor general, and it would go a “long way” towards advancing reconciliation.

Liberal MP and fellow indigenous caucus member Marc Serré (Nickel Belt, Ont.) echoed these comments.

“With the Queen’s representative, I don’t think we could ask for a higher symbolic gesture,” he said. “It’s very important to see ourselves as part of government.”

Mr. Serré, who is Métis and Algonquin, said while his French-speaking family in rural northern Ontario “weren’t big fans” of the Queen, he believes the governor general still has a role to play, namely when it comes to education.

He expressed hope that a prospective indigenous governor general would take more of an active role visiting primary and secondary schools to teach young Canadians about the history of the country’s First Peoples.

“I think it’s really important to educate our youth because we have a lot of negative stereotypes for indigenous people across the country,” Mr. Serré said, calling the treatment of indigenous people the “major dark spot” of Canadian history.

The Globe and Mail‘s John Ibbitson reported that Mr. Harper had wanted to choose an indigenous governor general, but “The trouble has been the difficulty in finding a distinguished indigenous Canadian who is fully bilingual.”

But Mr. Ouellette said that an indigenous governor general would face an “awful lot of pressure” to bring about expansive changes beyond the scope of the mostly ceremonial position.

“The problem for the governor general is it’s a largely symbolic position that doesn’t have any real day-to-day power in how government actually functions,” he explained.

“People will be asking then that person to bring about some change, to do things in a bit of a different way, and the question is: do they become the beds and feathers of dressing up the Canadian institutions or are they able to influence or counsel the prime minister on various directions?”

They must also boast considerable knowledge of Canadian law, history, and the powers of the position, he said.

“You need someone who’s very diplomatic. If there’s an indigenous governor general, they’re going to have to balance between two worlds,” Mr. Ouellette remarked.

“They’re going to have to be able, at times, to satisfy indigenous peoples’ desire to be seen, to be heard, be understood, and at the same time, be able to build those bridges with non-indigenous Canadians in a way that makes them comfortable in a way that the conversation is going.”

Despite the colonial linkages inherent in the post, Mr. Ouellette told The Hill Times that he believed most indigenous people would welcome an appointment as governor general, a comment echoed by his caucus colleagues.


The Hill Times 

Indigenous Liberal Caucus

Don Rusnak (Thunder Bay-Rainy River, Ont.) (chair)

Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver-Granville, B.C.)

Yvonne Jones (Labrador, Nfld.)

Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre, Alta.)

Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre, Man.)

Marc Serré (Nickel Belt, Ont.)

Michael McLeod (Northwest Territories)

Dan Vandal (St. Boniface-St. Vital, Man.)

Vance Badawey (Niagara-Centre, Ont.)

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