It was an exceptional week of news for Indigenous women, starting with the appointment of Mary Simon, an Inuk from northern Quebec, as Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
Then on Thursday, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and a descendant of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-kwil-tach people, announced that she was leaving politics in a letter that pulled no punches about being an Indigenous woman in the House of Commons.
Finally, late Thursday, after several rounds of balloting over two days, RoseAnne Archibald of the Taykwa Tagamou Nation in Ontario emerged as the first woman to become national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the country’s largest Indigenous organization.
As my colleague Dan Bilefsky noted in his article, Ms. Simon comes with a long record of accomplishments as she becomes Queen Elizabeth II’s representative as Canada’s head of state: A former broadcaster, she helped negotiate a land claim settlement in 1975 between the Cree and Inuit communities in Quebec’s north and the Quebec government. She was also president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit rights group. As a diplomat, she was Canada’s representative in Denmark and ambassador for circumpolar affairs, championing Canada’s interests in the Arctic.
The symbolism of Ms. Simon’s move into the governor general’s ceremonial position may play two ways within Indigenous communities. Indigenous leaders praised her abilities, her appointment and said having an Indigenous person in that job was long overdue.
But other Indigenous people are less awed, if still impressed, by Ms. Simon.
“The role of the governor general in terms of Canadian politics is largely seen and treated as a symbolic one,” Riley Yesno, a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute told me on Friday. “Indigenous youth and much of grass roots Indigenous leadership are calling for much more material changes than symbolic positions can offer. And so over the past few days, I’ve been kind of been rolling my eyes at Justin Trudeau touting this appointment as a very huge act of reconciliation.”
Ms. Yesno, who is Anishinaabe, did add that Inuit are much more likely to view themselves as Canadian as well as Indigenous than many people from other Indigenous groups, particularly the First Nations.
That division between younger Indigenous people and their leadership also comes up with the Assembly of First Nations. The chiefs who elected Ms. Archibald were themselves all leaders who were elected under the federal government’s rules rather than selected through traditional methods.
As a result, “A lot of First Nations people and certainly youth find that they feel very divorced from the leadership,” Ms. Yesno said, though adding that Ms. Archibald’s election is nevertheless an important moment for Indigenous women and that she has an important role in her new job.
Ms. Archibald will be immediately thrown into several important tasks, including making sure the government follows up with a plan announced last month to end violence against Indigenous women and girls and dealing with the discovery of hundreds of human remains on the grounds of former residential schools.
(This week, we published a gallery of historic photos from those schools.)
At a news conference on Friday, Ms. Archibald, who had been the Ontario regional chief, said that her relationship with Doug Ford, the Conservative premier of Ontario, provided a preview of how she would be dealing with Mr. Trudeau and the other premiers.
“Ask the Ontario government about the many times we have been at loggerheads,” she said, adding that despite those disputes, their overall relationship was positive and productive. “I have the ability to create a space that is respectful and kind with other leaders and, at the same time, hold them to account.”
That was not the experience of Ms. Wilson-Raybould. Her cabinet resignation during the SNC-Lavalin affair was seen by many Indigenous people as undermining Mr. Trudeau’s twin objectives of creating reconciliation with Indigenous people and advancing the cause of women.
Since becoming an independent member of Parliament, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has been a fierce critic of the institution. That continued when she announced this week that she would not seek re-election in a vote that might come this fall.
“From my seat over the last six years, I have noticed a change in Parliament, a regression,” she wrote in a statement posted online. “It has become more and more toxic and ineffective while simultaneously marginalizing individuals from certain backgrounds. Federal politics is, in my view, increasingly a disgraceful triumph of harmful partisanship over substantive action.”
Indigenous Children Vanished in Canada
The remains of what are presumed to be Indigenous children have been discovered at the sites of defunct boarding schools in Canada. Here’s what you should know:
- Background: Around 1883, Indigenous children in many parts of Canada were forced to attend residential schools in a forced assimilation program. Most of these schools were operated by churches, and all of them banned the use of Indigenous languages and Indigenous cultural practices, often through violence. Disease, as well as sexual, physical and emotional abuse were widespread. An estimated 150,000 children passed through the schools between their opening and their closing in 1996.
- The Missing Children: A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of a government apology and settlement over the schools, concluded that at least 4,100 students died while attending them, many from mistreatment or neglect, others from disease or accident. In many cases, families never learned the fate of their offspring, who are now known as “the missing children.”
- The Discoveries: In May, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies at the Kamloops school — which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969 — after bringing in ground-penetrating radar. In June, an Indigenous group said the remains of as many as 751 people, mainly children, had been found in unmarked graves on the site of a former boarding school in Saskatchewan.
- Cultural Genocide: In a 2015 report, the commission concluded that the system was a form of “cultural genocide.” Murray Sinclair, a former judge and senator who headed the commission, recently said he now believed the number of disappeared children was “well beyond 10,000.”
- Apologies and Next Steps: The commission called for an apology from the pope for the Roman Catholic church’s role. Pope Francis stopped short of one, but the archbishop of Vancouver apologized on behalf of his archdiocese. Canada has formally apologized and offered financial and other search support, but Indigenous leaders believe the government still has a long way to go.
The remark echoed a speech last month in the House of Commons by Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, an Inuk and the New Democratic Party member for Nunavut.
“Every time I walk onto House of Commons grounds, speak in these chambers, I am reminded every step of the way I don’t belong here,” she said in a speech announcing that she too would not seek re-election and in which she recounted being racially profiled by Parliamentary security.
“The reality is that this institution and the country has been created off the backs, trauma and displacement of Indigenous people.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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