Justin Trudeau has named Mary Simon, an Indigenous woman, as Canada’s next governor general. Simon will be the first Indigenous person to hold that post, and it is blatantly obvious why she has been appointed at this moment. Anger has boiled over upon the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, leading to torn down statues, burnt down churches, and a litany of other actions lashing out at the colonial crimes of Canada.
Trudeau’s last pick for governor general resulted in embarrassment for the government, when Julie Payette was disgraced for abusing workers and wasting taxpayer money on renovations to her luxurious quarters in Rideau Hall. This time around, Trudeau hopes to use Simon’s appointment to cut across the Indigenous movement with a symbolic concession, and maybe even resurrect his progressive reputation from the grave. No one should fall for this.
The Indigenous movement has exploded with red hot anger. Statues of Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II were toppled at Manitoba Legislature. The statue of Egerton Ryerson, architect of the residential school system, was demolished by an angry crowd in Toronto. Dozens of churches have been deliberately burnt to the ground or vandalized across the country.
On July 1st, 10 churches in Calgary were defaced. On one church, the words “we were children” and “our lives matter ” were written in red paint. Many on the right have been quick to denounce any attack on monuments of Canadian colonization. There have also been threats of racist violence and in one instance a totem pole was burnt in British Columbia with the words “one totem – one statue” spray painted across the bottom.
Alberta’s Premier, Jason Kenney, went as far as describing the vandalism of the symbols of colonialism as a “hate crime“. To equate the actions of the oppressed, coming from a completely understandable rage resulting from centuries of oppression and genocide with a “hate crime,” is the height of ridiculousness. These fires are completely insignificant when compared to the pain and suffering caused by residential schools and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Even the church attendees understand why they were set alight. One parishioner stated “We know it’s not personal to us necessarily. We hurt them and we understand that they’re in pain.”
Indigenous people should not expect such empathy from higher ups in the diocese. In 2005, the Catholic church agreed to raise $25 million for residential school survivors in a court settlement, but since then they have only given $4 million. In 2015, they successfully asked the court to dissolve their legal requirement for the other $21 million based on their “best efforts”. In that same amount of time, they’ve managed to find nearly $300 million for new church construction and renovation.
Although different Christian churches administered residential schools, and certainly bear responsibility for them, these churches were acting as agents of the state. Residential schools were funded, created, and directed by the Canadian government under the Indian Act, which made Indigenous people effectively “wards of the state”. The federal government maintained sweeping powers over all aspects of the lives of Indigenous people, including the ability to force, kidnap, and arrest anyone who resisted attending residential schools. Despite Trudeau’s best efforts to shift blame solely onto the church, 90% of Canadians correctly believe that the federal government is liable for the damage caused by residential schools.
Faced with an enormous amount of anger, Trudeau wants to placate Indigenous people by appointing an Indigenous person as the representative of the official head of state. We should be absolutely clear: This will do nothing for Indigenous people and will not further the Indigenous struggle one little bit. The idea that an oppressed group simply needs symbolic representation, or a handful of people in positions of power in the very state that oppresses them has been thoroughly disproven by the presidency of Barack Obama. When Obama became president in 2008, 24.1% of black Americans lived in poverty compared to 9.3% of white americans. When he left the office in 2016, the numbers barely budged to 23.8% and 10% respectively. The median income for Indigenous people in Canada is 30% lower than the rest of the population. While Indigenous people are only 4% of the population, they make up more than 23% of the inmate population. None of this will change with an Indigenous person as the governor general.
When Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, he was outspoken about the need for feminism and diversity in government. His first cabinet was gender balanced, with 15 women and 16 men, “because it’s 2015”. Trudeau hinted at the appointment of someone who will “reflect the diversity of Canada” to the position of governor general before Payette. But has the feminist Liberal government actually changed things for women?
A report published 4 years after Trudeau took office showed that it would take 164 years to close the pay gap between men and women. Only 162 years left to go! As of 2019, women were still more likely to live in poverty than men. Nor has this led to women being freed from sexism or domestic violence. This could not be clearer in Quebec, where there has been a wave of femicides. Not only has the feminist government failed women generally, Julie Payette was accused of abusing and belittling workers who were doing renovations she herself demanded! Apparently Payette couldn’t even stand the sight of these workers when it was reported that she “doesn’t like maintenance workers in her line of sight.”
There is no reason to believe that the appointment of Simon will play any different role than that of Payette or Michaëlle Jean for that matter: a symbolic gesture used by the capitalist state to attempt to save face. What’s more sinister about this appointment is that the Canadian state has been ramping up its attacks on Indigenous people, and there can be no doubt that Mary Simon will be used as an Indigenous shield to guard the regime. In the past few years the state has sat idly by or actively put down the Wet’suwet’en resistance, Mi’kmaq fishers, and 1492 Land Back Lane to name a few. As the indigenous struggle radicalizes and more indigenous peoples take action to protect their lands from capitalist encroachment, the very state which Simon now represents will have to choose between indigenous peoples and corporate interests, and it is obvious what side that the state and therefore Simon will take. The appointment of one person in a high position of the state machinery will not change the capitalist system which needs the state to crush these movements, even if that person’s heart is in the right place. Seeing that Simon has been vetted by Trudeau, we can assume that it is assured she will not stand in the way of the capitalist system’s violation of indigenous lands.
Indigenous people cannot rely on the Canadian state to end our oppression. The creation of the Canadian state was the direct result of the formation of Canadian capitalism – which drove indigenous peoples onto reserves, starved them and took their kids away, placing them in residential schools where many never returned. The state continues to attack Indigenous people because it is a state for the rich and powerful, the owners of oil, fishing, and development companies. It manages their interests, not ours. We have to rely on our own strength and align with the working class and all oppressed peoples to fight against the state and the capitalists it serves. No one should be fooled by the appointment of Mary Simon. This is the cheapest attempt at appeasement the Liberals could have come up with. The trajectory of Trudeau’s government has already been set: it will defend corporate interests and attempt to shield itself with more tokenism, more symbolic gestures, and more crocodile tears.