Mary Simon is now officially the governor-general-in-waiting for Canada, until a swearing-in ceremony expected to take place soon. Unofficially, this accomplished Inuk leader and former diplomat has held
that title for 11 years.
Sometimes a government appointment makes so much sense, one wonders why it hasn’t happened already? In Simon’s case, it actually almost did – twice.
As her husband, former CBC journalist Whit Fraser tells the story in his book “True North Rising,” Simon learned from the TV news in 2010 that her name was in the mix to replace Michaëlle Jean in the viceregal post.
Simon took the speculation so seriously, Fraser says, that she enrolled in French classes. She wasn’t overly fussed though, when David Johnston got the job. “She said then, and has consistently maintained since, that he was a good choice,” Fraser writes.
When Johnston’s term was up in 2016, Simon’s name started to circulate again; this time, closer to the top of the field of contenders. Surely Justin Trudeau would seize the moment to install Canada’s first Indigenous person in the job, given all the new prime minister had said about his “most important” relationship with Indigenous people.
But Simon was passed over again, in favour of former astronaut Julie Payette – and we know how that all turned out.
Now, in 2021, a government that once went looking for stars has developed the maturity to choose someone who feels most grounded in the land.
Simon’s appointment, in short, is a do-over, for a government that should have known better in 2016. It is proof that history can be made by choosing experience over novelty; quiet diplomacy rather than shoot-for-the-moon celebrity.
In an ideal world, the choice of governor-general should be above politics, and so far, so good. Praise has come from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. The Bloc Québécois didn’t have much good to say, but that was more about the institution of the Crown than Simon herself.
Even Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister who is normally critical of everything the Trudeau government does in the realm of Indigenous issues, had praise.
This is what 11 years as a governor-general-in-waiting buys you – patience and credibility. The fact that Simon was seen as a serious contender by a Conservative, then a Liberal government is a good sign.
So are her impeccable credentials. As someone who has served as an ambassador, a cultural leader, a journalist and a constitutional negotiator, she has amassed all the skills a governor general needs for a job heavy on ceremony, diplomacy, communication and symbolism.
Simon’s familiarity with the Constitution is not a small thing. The governor general can be called upon to be a referee in times of intense political stress, as Jean was during the so-called “coalition crisis” between Stephen Harper and the opposition in late 2008.
It was, in fact, Canada’s long, tortured history with constitutional negotiations that gave me my earliest encounters with Simon, back when the ill-fated Meech and Charlottetown accords were consuming the nation.
Four Indigenous groups were involved in the Charlottetown accord negotiations. Simon was head of the Inuit delegation. The accord was ultimately defeated in an early brush with populism in this country – a wholesale rejection in a 1992 national referendum of deals made by political elites.
Simon was the only Indigenous leader to carry her team with her – most Inuit people voted in favour of the deal she had negotiated, while the other Indigenous populations went against their leaders and with the tide of No to the Charlottetown accord.
Nearly 30 years since that not-insignificant achievement, Simon is being asked to carry Indigenous people with her once again, this time into the very heart of the Crown’s relationship with Canada. As with the old constitutional negotiations, she is being asked to represent her people but also to make them part of the big institutions that form this country.
Much will be said in the days and weeks to come about Mary Simon as a first for the country. But she has arrived in that place after some years spent as not-quite-first choice.
Not every prime minister gets to choose two governors general. Trudeau’s second run at it will almost certainly be remembered as better than his first – a victory on all sides for the wisdom of time and experience.
Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.