With the appointment of Mary Simon, it’s time to officialize Indigenous languages

The public conversation taking place due to the fact that Simon does not speak French only propagates the colonial status quo.

It’s been a week since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada’s next Governor-General will be Mary Simon, a longtime diplomat and advocate for Inuit and Indigenous peoples. 

Since then, and despite the appointment being greeted with an overwhelmingly positive reaction from Indigenous communities and leaders, the debate has been raging on about what this appointment means for Canada’s Official Languages Act. 

You see, Mary Simon does not speak French. So, while technically bilingual, her bilingualism is not of the “official” variety, the kind that dates back to Confederation when Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867 recognized the use of both French and English in Parliament and in federal courts. Her bilingualism is comprised of a much older, much more native to this country, much more endangered language, Inuktitut, and one of two colonizer languages, English. 

The colonial status quo

Her lack of French skills has upset many francophones, who say the position of Governor General requires bilingualism and knowledge of both official languages, which represent the country’s two “founding groups.”

This premise, of course, betrays the majority’s inability to flip the conversation on its head and inquire why, in fact, these languages are deemed “official” over languages that are indigenous to these lands, and why these two linguistic groups continue to be referred to as “founding” as if nothing and no one existed here before they showed up. In other words, the public conversation as it’s currently taking place only furthers and propagates one thing: the colonial status quo. 

The federal government choosing to undermine French concerns by opting for a Governor General who speaks English, but not French, is operating within the framework of the usual British colonial mindset that positions English as more important. Francophones have decried the decision as hypocritical because, they say, the opposite — a Governor General who only spoke French but not English — would never have been chosen. They are most likely right. To appoint someone who does not speak French is not insignificant and is indeed very representative of the double standards that continue to exist in a country that claims to be bilingual but really isn’t. 

Same same, but different

Francophone communities outside of Quebec continue to fight hard for incremental gains in French education and services. They continue to feel slighted by a government that often pays lip service to their concerns as they attempt to navigate a larger English community that is neither concerned nor truly aware of the daily challenges they face. I am not insensitive to these concerns. With this decision, historic as it may be for Indigenous communities, the Canadian government still protected the status quo; official bilingualism that continues to favour English. 

But francophones arguing that Mary Simon should have to speak French in order to be this country’s Governor General are also doing the same thing. They, too, are defending the status quo — a status quo that positions them as superior and deserving of more respect and recognition than Indigenous languages. So, while both linguistic groups might appear diametrically opposite in this debate, they are, in fact, opposite sides of the exact same coin: colonialism. Both displaying the arrogance and privilege of colonizers, demanding and fighting for rights that favour them the most. 

Even amid horrific residential school revelations, even as the posters from the #CancelCanadaDay marches have barely been put away, we immediately reverted to our traditional push and pull, our usual binary debates that centre us. Always us.

Indigenous languages erasure

The linguistic heritage and tradition of official bilingualism did not appear out of nowhere. It is a direct manifestation and result of colonialism and historic erasure of Indigenous communities. For French and English to be considered official founding languages today, 60+ Indigenous languages in Canada had to be erased, extinguished, eliminated, ignored, seen as inferior and relegated into oblivion as insignificant and of no value to the majority. These languages had to be quashed and “beaten out of the Indian,” so we could now be arguing how best to navigate our collective discomfort about a 73-year-old woman’s inability to effortlessly switch back and forth between two languages that are not her own. Every time reconciliation and decolonization require some compromise, some concession, some discomfort on our part, we deeply resent it. 

How many francophones and anglophones now taking a stance to argue about the importance of their respective language and the need for it to be respected can speak a single Indigenous language? The most basic of phrases, a simple greeting, a mere hello? We live in countries and provinces named after Indigenous words and yet we have never found it important to teach them or acquire them. We have never even thought of honouring them by also making them official. This colonial chatter that we’ve been engaged in this past week is the very opposite of working towards a true redefinition of our relationship with Indigenous communities.

Mary Simon should only speak Inuktitut

So, here is my humble contribution to a debate that has made bizarre allies out of pundits that I have never seen agreeing and has forced people to pretend to care about an institution that in theory they loathe: Mary Simon should only speak Inuktitut while in office and while giving official speeches. We have the technology for simultaneous translation, we have interpretation services, we do it in the House of Commons all the time. Not a word of English and not a word of French. Sounds radical? So what? Many things do when we’re not used to considering the options. Simon gets to speak Inuktitut, we get to hear it in an official capacity, therefore giving it (finally!) equal weight, and we get to pay translators for the privilege of understanding what she says. Anything less is just privilege and settler entitlement squabbles masquerading as linguistic concerns. 

Indigenous languages have been spoken by Inuit, First Nations and Métis on these lands for thousands of years — far longer than English or French. Most of these languages are endangered. Residential schools did what they were designed to do by fundamentally contributing to language and culture loss. “Of Canada’s approximately 1.5 million Indigenous peoples, just 15% speak their heritage languages at home,” according to UNESCO.

Why not use this historic opportunity to move the needle forward and truly honour these languages by allowing the next GG to speak one of them, without our entitled demands for mastery in either colonial language? 

Make Indigenous languages official

Bolivia and Venezuela have elevated all Indigenous languages to official language status. Peru has done the same with Aymara, a Native American language. New Zealand has designated Maori as an official language. What are we waiting for? 

When we’ve reached the point in the conversation in which conservative pundit Barbary Kay is arguing that Simon’s inability to speak French is a “danger to Canada,” and French-language hardliners are defending the linguistic requirements of the Queen’s representative in Canada, we have reached bizarro-world territory. But it also becomes obvious that everyone is defending the same thing: the status quo. The official status of two colonial languages, with no real concern for the status of Indigenous languages. Isn’t it about time we changed that default setting? 

First Nations leaders have been calling for the official recognition of Indigenous languages for years now. Proposals have been submitted for decades to no avail. No government has truly been interested. But times have changed.

What better way to claim a new redefined and evolved post-colonial version of Canada than to elevate and promote to one of the symbolically highest positions in the country a language that the Crown once sought to exterminate? ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.