Canada has achieved much in creating a compassionate, just and harmonious society. However, it needs to go a step further and appoint an indigenous person as Governor General in September, to heal the wounds in its relations with indigenous peoples. This would be the best sesquicentennial celebration of all, a powerful signal on the road to becoming a truly inclusive society.
The English and French settlers in Canada occupied the Governor General’s office by alternating it between themselves: appointing an English-origin Canadian followed by a French-Canadian, and so on, until 1989, when then prime minister Brian Mulroney broke the tradition by appointing Ray Hnatyshyn, of Ukrainian origin. Mulroney also appointed Lincoln Alexander as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in 1985, the first black Canadian to occupy the post, and Hong Kong-born David Lam as Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia in 1988, the first person of Chinese origin in that job.
Jean Chrétien appointed Adrienne Clarkson Governor General, in 1999. She had come to Canada as a refugee from Hong Kong in 1941. Clarkson was followed by Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean in 2005.
The symbolism of all these non European-origin appointments has played a significant role in the evolution of Canada as a welcoming, tolerant and all-inclusive society. Similarly, the appointment of an indigenous person would send a very powerful signal to all Canadians of the respect and regard that we owe Indigenous Peoples.
The visits by these high-profile public office holders to schools have a profound, positive and lasting impact on young Canadians, symbolizing the kind of country Canada is or that we are trying to build – in which everyone is equal and treated with respect. As well, the appointment of an indigenous person would help dispel the negative, stereotypical images embedded in our history.
Canada, unfortunately, has some nasty history. For instance, no indigenous person was invited to the three constitutional conferences, which culminated in Canada becoming a Confederation, although they had been here long before the European settlers. In fact, while women were granted the right to vote in 1918, Indigenous Peoples were not allowed to vote in a federal election without losing their treaty status until 1960.
Most white Canadians (for lack of any other term) are geared up to celebrate “150 Years of Confederation” on July 1. Indigenous Peoples, however, consider it a continuation of colonialism, as they were forced off resource-rich, arable land and herded off onto reservations. According to one Manitoba indigenous leader, Derek Nepinak: “We don’t have a lot to celebrate when it comes to 150 years of assimilation and genocide and marginalization.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has acknowledged Canada attempted to commit “cultural genocide” against Indigenous Peoples, in what she calls the worst stain on Canada’s human rights record.
Canada, to its credit, has acknowledged wrongs of the past. Former prime minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology in Parliament to Indigenous Peoples for historic wrongs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently removed the name “Langevin” from the building housing the Prime Minister’s Office. The reason: Sir Hector-Louis Langevin was associated with the forced removal of indigenous children from their families and sending them to Christian residential schools. Progressive and thoughtful moves such as Trudeau’s are bound to encourage reconciliation and harmony.
There is much to celebrate about 150 years of Canada’s existence as a confederation. It is a country populated by immigrants, who come seeking refuge from all forms of persecution, economic opportunities and a promise of a better life. It has become an experiment on how diverse communities can play an equal role in shaping and developing a country.
Happy celebrations Canada for what you have overcome and achieved, and for the promise you hold for many in the future!