Reconciliation driving force behind major changes in Ottawa and planned meeting with Pope Francis at Vatican
By Bryan Dryden, Canadian Catholic News
[Ottawa – CCN] – The appointment of the first Indigenous person to be Canada’s Govenor-General is being called a “meaningful” step towards reconciliation for the crimes of the past that have been committed against Canada’s First Peoples.
The appointment comes at a time when the country is reeling from the discovery of numerous grave sites across Canada at former residential schools that has reinvigorated the push for a new relationship between Canadian society as a whole and its Indigenous communities.
In announcing that Mary Simon would be Canada’s next Governor-General, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that she is the person needed in the role at this time.
“Canada is a place defined by people – by people who serve those around them, who tackle big challenges with hope and determination and, above all, who never stop working to build a brighter tomorrow,” Trudeau said.
“Frankly, we need more leaders like Ms. Simon in high office, people who understand what it means to take on real issues and create positive change,” he said.
“Ms. Simon has dedicated her life to advancing social, economic, and human rights issues for Canadian Inuit and Indigenous peoples, and I am confident that she will serve Canadians and promote our shared values with dedication and integrity,” Trudeau said. “Through this appointment, we are ensuring that Canada is represented by someone who exemplifies the very best of our country.”
Simon, who was twice the president of the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and has also served as the Canadian ambassador to Denmark, also recognizes the importance of the moment that her appointment marks.
“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” Simon said, adding “my appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history.”
A number of Indigenous organizations have praised her appointment at this time.
Janet Kanayok of the Manitoba Inuit Association told the Indigenous news network APTN that Simon’s appointment is a concrete step towards reconciliation.
“I know a lot are happy that Mary is in that position, because the government talks about reconciliation and now that she’s in that position I think that’s a step forward in all that’s been going on,” said Kanayok.
“I think it’s long overdue,” she said.
Current ITK president Natan Obed said Simon’s appointment is a positive step forward.
“I think an Indigenous person as governor general, in this point in time, can be a part of that positive forward thinking, reconciliation-based conversation,” he said.
Simon is from the Ungava Bay area in northeastern Quebec and was involved in negotiating the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in the 1970s and was an Inuit representative to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982.
Trudeau said it is “only by reaching out to those around us, it is only by building bridges between people in the North and South, just like in the East and West, that we can truly move forward.”
“Mary Simon has done that throughout her life. I know she will help continue paving that path ahead. And we will all be stronger for it,” Trudeau said of what he called an “historic step” in in appointing the first Indigenous Gov.-Gen. in Canada’s 154-year history.
Simon’s appointment comes amid the fallout from the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country and there is mounting pressure on the Catholic Church, which ran many of the residential schools on behalf of the federal government, to issue a papal apology for its role in Canada’s residential school system.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has helped pave the way for a meeting with the Pope later this year in December when a delegation of representatives of First Nations, Metis and Inuit Canadians will call upon the Pope to visit Canada and formally apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system in the past.
Former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde said a visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis in December will be an opportunity for Canada’s First Peoples to convince the Pope that reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous Canadians can only move forward if the Pope visits Canada and apologizes to survivors and families on the “soil and the land” where the abuses of the residential school system occurred.
“The meeting has been confirmed at the Vatican so we are going to take that meeting and then at that time take the opportunity to invite his Holiness back to Canada at some point in the future,” Chief Bellegarde said during a press conference on June 30.
“There are no guarantees of any apology or that he will even come back to Canada but we have to make the attempt and we have to seize the opportunity,” said Chief Bellegarde. “I believe the spirit will move and things will happen in a good way. That is my hope and that is my prayer.”
Just a few days after Chief Bellegarde’s press conference, a new leader of the AFN was chosen when RoseAnne Archibald was elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Archibald is the first woman to lead the AFN. Bellegarde did not seek reelection.
Chief Bellegarde’s press conference came a day after the Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) confirmed that a meeting between representatives of Canada’s First Peoples and the Pope in the Vatican will be held Dec. 17-20.
“Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous Peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonization and the role of the Church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma,” said a statement released by the CCCB on June 29.
The announced meeting in the Vatican between Pope Francis and Canadian Indigenous representatives also comes on the heels of the appointment of a new apostolic nuncio to Canada that Pope Francis announced back on June 5 when Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič was named to the post.
Jurkovič’s appointment comes at a time when the relationship between the Canadian government and the Catholic Church has been strained and there have been renewed calls in Canada among politicians and Indigenous Canadians for the Vatican to officially apologize for the Church’s role in operating residential schools.
While Jurkovič is not expected to take up his post in Canada until towards the end of August, he has served as the Vatican’s Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and has been a key figure in the Vatican when it comes to Indigenous rights and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
That has some Canadian Catholics hopeful that he will play a positive role in bettering relations between the Church and Canada’s Indigenous communities.
“That is something that could be helpful in the future,” said Joe Gunn of the Ottawa-based Centre Oblat – A Voice for Justice.