By Destine Lord, IRG director and proud Canadian of Afro-Caribbean descent
There is no doubt that Julie Payette is an impressive woman with even more impressive credentials. She is an astronaut, computer engineer, and pilot. In her spare time, she’s an accomplished pianist and choral singer who just happens to speak six languages. To say the lady has skills is an understatement. My hope is that she will bring a more youthful approach to the more traditional and stogy activities undertaking by past Governors General.
That said I wonder if Team Trudeau has missed an opportunity to move past convention and come at this from left field. The Liberals claim during the past election was “to do things differently”. Sunny ways included things like gender parity, voting reform, and a renewed relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Alas, like Ontario’s weather, we all know there is little sun to go around these days. In terms of tradition, Governors General alternate between men and women, Anglophone and Francophone. Given where we are in the order, the announcement of Julie Payette isn’t at all a surprise, nor an example of doing things differently. Trudeau can’t really claim gender parity either because the order lined up perfectly with the timing of his government.
BUT what if today’s announcement was truly ground breaking? What if the next GG was… Indigenous? Now, given the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, it’s debatable as whether or not a First Nations or Métis individual would even want to step into the role, thus validating the very system responsible for the colonization and disenfranchisement of his/her people. Although subject to the same colonization, the Inuit have a very different relationship with the Crown and perhaps an Inuk might be more likely to step into the role? It is an ongoing conversation within Indigenous communities.
My point is the thought of an Indigenous person representing the very Crown that sought to diminish the standing of his/her people is so audacious, so breathtaking that it could have sent a real message to Canadians and shaken the country to its core. It would create a great debate and among Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike about the Crown and its relationship with Indigenous people. It would force the Office of the Governor General to adopt and integrate cultural practices and protocol that extend beyond French and English heritage. It would extend the boundaries of possibility to Indigenous children and young adults who rarely get to see people that look and sound like themselves, represented in the highest levels of government. And that’s just a start!
Full disclosure: I consider myself a softcore republican (the political theory, NOT the American label!), I struggle to find value/relevance in the Royal Family and most of the vestiges that hark back to Canada’s colonial British heritage. If I had the option of pressing the RESET button on it all, I would. That said, I have vivid recollections of Michäelle Jean’s announcement as Governor General. The country was rocked and I was in complete awe. Here was a black woman – an immigrant no less, with her white husband representing the Crown of a country that was responsible for buying and selling my ancestors! How thoroughly modern and refreshing!
The Feeling I had that day can only be described as a weird mix of pride and rebellion. It was like thumbing my nose at history, and breathlessly waiting for change to happen right in front of me. All the concentrated whiteness of Parliament, at some point, would have to defer to the black woman living down the way on Sussex Drive. That Feeling is a good one. That Feeling is justified. And giving every Indigenous child the opportunity to experience that Feeling is exactly how you do things differently. Oh well, it truly is a missed opportunity. Seven more years until the next chance at that Feeling. Until then, we can only hope for sunny ways… or an Indigenous PM instead!