OTTAWA — Gov. Gen. Mary Simon is using her role to help build ties between Indigenous people across the globe — an effort experts say is leveraging a colonial institution to advance reconciliation abroad and bolster centuries of collaboration.
“I’ve had some very interesting dialogue,” Simon said in an interview last month after a trip to Finland.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent the Governor General to Helsinki in February to mark the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and Finland, and to show solidarity as the country seeks closer military ties with other western countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Simon, who is Inuk, also used the trip to bring along Indigenous leaders and foster ties with the Sami, who are the Indigenous people of northern Europe.
“As an Indigenous Governor General, I was able to connect well with the Indigenous representatives in Finland, with Sami people,” she said.
“We discussed with them about how we could further facilitate exchanges between Indigenous communities in Canada and the Sami people.”
Simon said that Finnish people are “more at the beginning stages of their Truth and Reconciliation Commission work,” but added they are finding ways to involve young people that could serve as a model for other Indigenous groups.
Simon said she’s similarly touched base on such issues with the governors general of Australia and New Zealand.
“These are countries that are also very involved and engaged in trying to come to terms with the past, and to talk about how this renewed relationship can work in their own country,” she said.
Experts say the viceregal can help guide Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada on collaborating across borders.
“She’s in a really unique position to help Canadian institutions understand how to evolve to better serve Indigenous Peoples,” said Max FineDay, the head of the consulting firm Warshield, which advises Indigenous leadership on international partnerships.
FineDay, who is Cree and splits his time between Ottawa and Sweetgrass First Nation in northwestern Saskatchewan, said this can build on centuries of exchanges.
“We traded with each other and built our own economies pre-colonization; we made treaties with other Indigenous groups,” he said.
“This is a natural evolution in what Indigenous diplomacy has looked like now, on a bit more of a broader scale.”
He suggested that Simon could use the colonial institution of Rideau Hall as a tool that helps communities upend the harm imposed by colonialism.
Already, communities within Canada share notes on revitalizing languages or finding a balance between development resources and environmental protection, he said.
But FineDay said nations within Canada could also share their experience and learn from communities in other countries about topics such as reasserting autonomy over child welfare or running health-care systems that are culturally informed.
“The Governor General also has a unique and important opportunity for Indigenous people to see how other nations are innovating solutions around combating colonialism,” he said.
“The Governor General can point and say, ‘This is innovation. This is an extraordinary model. These are outcomes that we hope to see in our country.’ (She can) shine a light on opportunities where our politicians, our civil servants, maybe even our Indigenous leadership haven’t seen or haven’t thought to look.”
FineDay noted that Indigenous people see their primary treaty relationship as being with the Crown instead of with elected politicians, putting Simon in a unique position as an Indigenous representative of the King.
“There is no sort of road map for Her Excellency,” he said. “With that comes a lot of opportunity.”
Nathan Tidridge, an author who is the longtime vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, said Indigenous Peoples have done their own diplomacy for centuries.
For example, a delegation led by four Haudenosaunee chiefs arrived in London in 1710 to negotiate directly with Queen Anne about military defence, as part of a 1669 treaty. First Nations met with British officials frequently until the years leading up to Confederation, Tidridge said.
“There is this long-standing tradition that is both very historic but also modern, that Mary Simon is part of,” he said.
“Very few Canadians really understand it. I didn’t, until I started looking at it myself in greater depth.”
Canadian provinces have had at least five lieutenant-governors who were First Nations or Métis, before Simon became the first Indigenous Governor General in 2021.
Tidridge says the jobs are markedly different. The provincial representatives are selected by the prime minister and able to advance policies without bearing the federal responsibility for relations with Indigenous Peoples.
The first representative with Indigenous roots, Alberta’s former Lt.-Gov. Ralph Steinhauer, was Cree. Tidridge noted that Steinhauer spoke out against a bill that sought to limit Indigenous land claims to create oilsands projects, and even pondered withholding Royal Assent on that legislation before relenting in 1977.
“They can push a little bit further, whereas the Governor General must follow the advice of the prime minister,” Tidridge argued, saying Simon’s job amounts more to “soft power.”
FineDay and Tidridge both contend that New Zealand is further ahead than Canada in its de-colonizing process. Its governor general is Maori and there is greater Indigenous representation in the top echelons of power and in how institutions are organized.
Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, released last year, calls for greater economic partnerships between Indigenous communities in Canada and those in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Tidridge also said he’s keenly watching for what roles Indigenous Peoples will take in next month’s coronation ceremony in London. He said he believes King Charles has signalled an openness to incorporating Indigenous Peoples and using his role to reverse the harms of colonization.
“The Crown as an institution is more than a millennium old, and it doesn’t survive this long without adapting and changing to meet the needs of the society that it exists in.”
That could mean giving Indigenous people a platform and shining a light on historical events, Tidridge suggested.
“There is a need for safer spaces for conversation. People are so scared right now to have these really critical conversations that we need to have, about a variety of things around un-colonizing, around the Canadian state,” he said.
“A tremendous power that the Governor General, and the lieutenant-governors and the King have, is they can convene these spaces.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press