Quebec language stir opens investigation into Mary Simon appointment

It's hard not to see the brouhaha over soon-to-be Governor-General's lack of fluency in French as anything but colonialism—in both official languages

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      Canada’s commissioner of official languages is looking into complaints received by his office over the federal government’s recent appointment of Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general, Mary Simon.

      In a statement released Monday, official languages commissioner Raymond Théberge reports that his office has received “over 400” complaints taking issue with the fact that Simon is not fluent in French, Canada’s other official language. Théberge says the office’s investigation “will focus on the Privy Council Office in its advisory role on this appointment”.

      Most Canadians have hailed the July 6 appointment of Canada’s first Inuk Governor General as an important step toward reconciliation, especially in the wake of the recent discovery of the graves of hundreds of Indigenous children at former Indian residential schools. Simon is set to be sworn in on July 26. Some would say it’s a turning point in our history.

      But the appointment seems to have raised the ire of certain Quebec columnists—at least, the number of complaints to the commissioner seems to have jumped exponentially after some opined on the question of Simon’s French. The Trudeau government may have inadvertently stoked that fire when it moved last month under pressure from conservative Quebec premier François Legault to officially recognize French as the first language of Quebec with an amendment in the Official Languages Act.

      It’s difficult to know how much of this has to do with Théberge simply responding to popular sentiment in Quebec. He commended Simon’s appointment as important for the preservation of minority languages, in particular Indigenous languages. 

      “I have no doubt that her perspective and experience will enable her to contribute to the protection of Indigenous and minority official languages across the country.”

      But Théberge says that Simon’s appointment has “elicited many reactions across the country". The exact nature of the complaints received by the office or whether any of those come from politicians or representatives of publicly funded institutions is not for public consumption.

      Sonia Lamontagne, a senior communications advisor to the commissioner, says in an email response to us that “As the investigation is ongoing, we have to limit our comments to the specific issues raised in the complaints. In addition, as the Official Language Act requires that our investigations be conducted in private to safeguard the integrity of the process, we can not release the identity of the complainants.

      “In his role as the Ombudsman of Official Languages, the Commissioner remains independent and impartial in his review of complaints.”

      That hasn’t stopped the commissioner, however, from taking the highly unusual step of offering his opinion, however indirectly, on the matter of Simon’s appointment.

      The commissioner shared his view that diversity and respect for official languages should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

      “Too often, I see a discourse that puts respect for diversity and inclusion on one hand, and respect for official languages on the other, as if they could not coexist. I would like to remind decision-makers that it is entirely possible to respect official languages while being inclusive.” 

      In that, Théberge, who has authored a book on the future of French-speaking minority communities, seems to be echoing the views of Senator René Cormier, chair of the senate’s committee studying the federal Official Languages Act—and Trudeau appointee.

      But Simon is no stranger to Quebec. She helped negotiate the landmark agreement that enabled the development of hydro dams over Cree and Inuit opposition in the province. She is a recipient of l’Ordre national du Québec, the province’s highest distinction. She grew up in a village in northeastern Quebec. She has committed to learning the language she was denied the opportunity to learn as a child in a government-run school. A number of prominent Quebeckers, including groups representing francophone organizations, have applauded her appointment. 

      As Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq pointed out on social media, Simon is fluent in English as well as Inuktitut, “a language that has been spoken here for thousands of years”. 

      Loss of language, and the corresponding questions of identity that arise from that, are something that both French-Canadians and Indigenous peoples have had to endure in Canada for hundreds of years. The conflicts and contradictions are many. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, Simon is also facing questions from her own community about accepting the appointment.

      Théberge’s office has given no timeline on his findings. The service standard is 175 for a preliminary report. But whatever the findings they won’t be made public. Lamontagne notes they will only be shown to the complainants and federal institutions.

      Théberge concluded in his statement that the aim of Canada when it comes to language should be “to make our country a place where we don’t have to choose between respect for official languages and inclusion for all.” Hard to disagree. But even harder not to see this stir as anything but colonialism at work—in both official languages.