Revising the Raj
Far from wanting to colonise the minds of their new subjects, most founders of British rule were fascinated by India’s traditional arts and crafts, and keen to explore the wonders of its classical past. The tone was set by the first governor-general, Warren Hastings (in post 1772–85), who mixed freely with Indians. He was fluent in their vernacular languages, Hindustani and Bengali, and also spoke some Persian, the court language of the Mughal empire. As the most powerful man in India, he was determined to rule, as far as possible, through Indian officials and according to traditional Mughal laws and customs.
The 70th anniversary of Indian independence triggered a remarkable outpouring of post-colonial guilt in Britain. For a younger generation with no first-hand experience of it, empire is now a dirty word – an evil occupation of other people’s countries in order to plunder their wealth. The idea that imperialism could be a benevolent, modernising force, involving collaboration and exchange between rulers and ruled, is now deeply unfashionable. And yet the survival of the British Raj in India for almost two centuries is impossible to explain without understanding such dialogue and partnership.
Hastings began India’s equivalent of the European Renaissance. Its nucleus was the Asiatic Society of Calcutta (now Kolkata), founded in 1784 and modelled on the Royal Society in London. At its head was one of the greatest polymaths of the European enlightenment: Sir William Jones, orientalist, philologist and jurist. Jones combined his role as judge in Calcutta’s new supreme court with the codification and translation of India’s laws and customs.
The Asiatic Society brought the print revolution to India and began a flow of journals dedicated to the study of India’s classical Hindu and Buddhist past. The governor-general himself was an eager patron of Sanskrit, the language of India’s ancient religious texts, then seen as the root of Indo-European languages and part of a shared Aryan heritage. Sanskrit, like medieval Latin, had become the preserve of India’s narrow Brahmin priestly caste. But the orientalists opened up the Sanskrit classics to Europeans and other Indians by translating and printing them in English and the Indian vernaculars. Hastings personally funded a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred Hindu texts, and wrote an enthusiastic introduction to it.
The early Indian orientalists had to do without the aid of past historians, since ancient India – unlike classical Greece and Rome – had left behind no written histories of its own. India’s past had to be reconstructed from ancient stones and ruins, from lost pavilions and buried treasure. The Asiatic Society succeeded in mobilising an enthusiastic volunteer army of amateur archaeologists from among the British civil and military officers stationed in the districts. They were encouraged to spend their leisure exploring local monuments, collecting their artefacts and publishing their findings in the society’s journals. It was their efforts that led to the excavation and conservation of some of ancient India’s most iconic sites: Elephanta and Ajanta, Kanheri and Ellora, Khajuraho and Mahabalipuram.
Break from the past
Almost a millennium of conquest and dominion by Muslim settlers had created a major hiatus with the pre-Islamic past. This was remedied in part by British orientalists who were responsible for two dramatic chronological breakthroughs, the first down to Sir William Jones himself. Having mastered Sanskrit, he identified Chandragupta Maurya as the fourth-century BC Indian king who received the Greek historian-cum-diplomat Megasthenes. It was a discovery that enabled Indian history to be dated back to the Buddha. Half a century later, in the 1830s, another outstanding British polymath, James Prinsep, deciphered the forgotten Brahmi script, thereby revealing the edicts carved into pillars by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (reigned c268–232 BC). As secretary of the Asiatic Society, Prinsep was a prime example of the brilliant amateurism of British orientalists. He was not a historian but a numismatist working in the East India Company’s mint, yet his work deciphering coin inscriptions led him to the greatest discovery in Indian historiography.
Today Ashoka, who reigned over an empire that encompassed the whole subcontinent, is the most powerful nationalist symbol of India’s past. But few nationalists would concede that they owe that memory to a British official. Instead, the nationalist narrative accuses western orientalists of using their scholarly pursuits as yet another form of colonial appropriation, documenting India in order to rule it more effectively. An important element of this theory of cultural imperialism is the notion that western rulers not only appropriated Indian cultural traditions for their own ends but also systematically uprooted and replaced them with a western education system designed to colonise the minds of Indians.
The controversy over colonial education in India came to a head in the 1930s in a debate between Mahatma Gandhi and the British educationist Sir Philip Hartog, who had spent many years as an education advisor in India. In 1931, in London for the second Round Table Conference on India’s constitutional future, Gandhi delivered a much-publicised lecture at Chatham House. “Today India is more illiterate than it was 50 or 100 years ago…” he declared, “because the British… instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.”
Read more: Gandhi in Britain
Hartog, who was in the audience, promptly wrote to Gandhi pointing out that, according to census figures, male literacy in British India had steadily, if not spectacularly, increased from 8% in 1881 to 14.4% in 1921. The two men exchanged letters and met to discuss their differences. Whereas Gandhi cited the near universal prevalence of village schools in the pre-colonial period, Hartog pointed out that mere numbers in school provided a far from accurate index of literacy. The Mahatma, he urged, should publicly withdraw his mistaken claims about Indian literacy declining under the Raj. Gandhi, by then back in India and busy with his civil disobedience campaigns, pleaded lack of time to research his own position. “My prejudice or presentiment,” he wrote to Hartog, “still makes me cling to the statement I made at Chatham House.”
Uprooting the knowledge tree
There the correspondence ended, but the argument about the beautiful Indian knowledge tree that the British allegedly uprooted goes on. At its core lies the fact that the only surviving reports about Indian education, before and during the early Raj, come from foreign observers. Indeed, the only eyewitness account of pre-colonial academic life in India is from François Bernier, an intrepid 17th-century French traveller. He spent eight years in India, first as physician to Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh, then at the court of the brother who killed and usurped that prince, Emperor Aurangzeb.
Without any trace of irony, Bernier wrote the following report to a statesman under the Sun King, Louis XIV: “The country is ruined by the necessity of defraying the enormous charges required to maintain the splendour of a numerous court, and to pay a large army maintained for the purpose of keeping the people in subjection. No adequate idea can be conveyed of the sufferings of that people. The cudgel and the whip compel them to incessant labour for the benefit of others…”
Bernier was equally scathing about the Hindu holy city of Benares (now Varanasi), regarded as “the Athens of India”. It had nothing approaching a decent university – neither colleges nor classes, just small groups of disciples under religious gurus, housed in the homes of rich merchants. The students were generally indolent, and their studies might drag on for more than a decade, with a curriculum based on Sanskrit and the study of holy texts. When it came to philosophy, Bernier condemned “the extreme ignorance” of the teachers, who “make a thousand foolish and confused observations”.
He was even more scornful of Hindu astronomy and geography. Students were taught “that the world is flat and triangular”, divided into seven continents surrounded by seas of milk, butter, sugar and wine, “the whole… supported on the heads of a number of elephants, whose occasional motion is the cause of earthquakes”. There was no understanding of anatomy, because caste taboos forbade dissection, but the gurus “affirm that the number of veins in the human body is 5,000, neither more nor less, just as if they had carefully reckoned them”.
Bernier’s account, however exaggerated, is a stark reminder of how far pre-colonial Indian education had fallen behind the contemporary European Enlightenment of Descartes and Newton, especially in the science and technology that would prove so decisive in the next two centuries. The picture was equally depressing when it came to primary education. Based on figures compiled by British officials in the 1820s and 1830s, some nationalist historians have argued that, before the British uprooted “the Beautiful Tree”, every village in Bengal, Madras and Bombay had a school, with pupil attendance rates higher than in contemporary England. But what such statistics disguised was the very primitive schooling on offer in Indian village schools, the absence of printed books and the withdrawal of children before they reached the level of literacy.
Father Paolino di San Bartolomeo, an Austrian priest who spent 13 years in India in the 1770s and 1780s, was dismayed by schooling standards in the prosperous, native-administered region of Malabar. “Children assemble half-naked under the shade of a coconut tree,” he wrote. “No people… on earth have adhered so much to their ancient usages and customs as the Indians.” There were no books, blackboards or even slates; pupils traced letters in the sand, prostrated themselves before their teachers and never questioned their authority.
Read more: The chaotic conquest of India
According to modern Delhi-based historian Aparna Basu, the decline in Indian educational standards dated back to the middle of the 18th century, after the decline of the Mughal empire but well before the British took over. “The village patshalas [basic schools] were often housed in shabby dwellings and taught by ill-qualified teachers,” she writes. “There was no fixed class routine, timetable or school calendar. There was no annual examination.”
It was against this background that in 1813 the British parliament enacted an annual provision of 100,000 rupees (£10,000) “for the revival and improvement of literature and encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences…” Twenty years later, the sum was increased to 1,000,000 rupees (£100,000) – a drop in the ocean of state education, but still well in advance of England, where no public funds for education were approved until 1833.
This state funding went initially to Calcutta’s Sanskrit college and Muslim madrasa (Islamic college), both committed to traditional learning. But there also followed a rapid expansion of the voluntary sector with so-called ‘convent schools’ opened by Christian missionaries. They wrote, translated and printed the first school textbooks in Indian languages, and introduced modern schooling, with timetables, grades, classes and teachers specialising in different subjects. In 1817, this educational groundswell produced India’s first western-style, secular college, the Calcutta Hindu College, founded as a private joint venture between committed British officials and the new, western-oriented Bengali elite, led by the great reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Later renamed Presidency College, its secular modernism made it a model for future Indian colleges. Colonial Calcutta also led the way with a new School Book Society, which printed 126,000 free school books in its first four years, and an allied School Society that opened 115 new vernacular schools during the same period.
Back in London, the East India Company’s directors expressed concern that the spread of western education might encourage a spirit of rebellion among their Indian subjects. But their governor-general, Lord Hastings (no relation to Warren, and who was in post 1813–23), replied: “It would be treason to British sentiment to imagine that it could ever be the principle of this government to perpetuate ignorance in order to secure paltry and dishonest advantages over the blindness of the multitude.”
Hastings’ illustrious deputy in Bombay, Mountstuart Elphinstone, went further in proclaiming education as the stepping-stone to India’s independence and “our high road back to Europe”. The Raj, he argued, must sow the seeds of its own dissolution. “It is for our interest,” Elphinstone wrote, “to have an early separation from a civilised people, rather than a violent rupture with a barbarous nation.” Under his leadership, the Bombay Native Education Society published thousands of new school textbooks – many in local languages – opened several new schools, started classes in medicine and engineering and founded the prestigious Elphinstone College.
Read more: Raj nostalgia: reconsidering the stories through which we view empire
The idealism of men such as Elphinstone coincided during the 1830s with a new strand of utilitarian thinking that saw western education as a necessary tool for recruiting India’s middle class into the colonial administration. The result was an education policy that is still identified with the brilliant maverick historian-politician Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–59). As education supremo to the reforming governor-general William Bentinck (in post 1828–35), Macaulay articulated a policy that transferred state funding from the orientalist study of classical Sanskrit and Arabic to English-medium education in what were considered useful modern subjects.
‘Macaulay’s children’ is a derisive term still used by Indian nationalists to brand their anglicised compatriots as imperialist lackeys. Macaulay’s Education Minute of 1835 famously spoke of the need to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. But those who condemn such colonial elitism never quote Macaulay’s next, far more egalitarian sentence: “To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for carrying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”
The next century saw British rule in India, constrained both by lack of funds and by the prevailing laissez-faire philosophy of government, struggling to serve these twin educational goals. Governor-generals Bentinck, Auckland and Dalhousie all championed policies of comprehensive primary education based on vernacular schools, but failed to implement them for lack of funds. After the British crown took over direct rule of the country from the East India Company, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Viceroy Lord Mayo again took up the cudgel for vernacular education in 1868 and attacked the so-called ‘filtration theory’, whereby knowledge would trickle down from the upper classes to the masses. “In Bengal,” he lamented, “we are educating in English a few hundred Babus (clerks) at great expense to the State. Many of them are well able to pay for themselves, and have no other object in learning than to qualify for Government employ. In the meanwhile we have done nothing towards extending knowledge to the millions. The Babus will never do it. The more education you give them, the more they will try to keep it to themselves, and make their increased knowledge a means of tyranny… Let the Babus learn English by all means. But let us try to do something towards teaching the three Rs to Rural Bengal.”
In 1882, viceroy Lord Ripon appointed a commission to enquire into “the present state of elementary education and the means by which this can be everywhere extended and improved”. But despite such efforts, primary education barely kept pace with India’s growing population, and the Raj conspicuously failed in its aim to educate the Indian masses. Far from digging up the roots of indigenous education, as Gandhi claimed, the Raj at worst treated them with benign neglect. Its only consolation might have been the even more abysmal performance of post-independence Indian governments, which even 60 years later had still failed to introduce free and compulsory primary education.
Higher education fared much better under Macaulay’s reforms. Even at the height of the rebellion of 1857, governor-general Viscount Canning bravely went ahead with his plans to establish universities at Calcutta, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). Other cities followed suit, and the numbers of new colleges and college students rose rapidly, egged on by a wave of philanthropic endowments by Indian princes and newly enriched business magnates. For conservatives such as Viceroy Curzon, Indian universities, far from producing Macaulay clones, were becoming a cradle for militant nationalists, socialists and even violent terrorists, nurtured on western political ideals.
In 1901 Curzon, opening a conference on education, referred to “a powerful school of opinion which does not hide its con-viction that the experiment of English education was a mistake, and that its result has been a disaster… that it has given birth to a tone of mind and to a type of character that is ill-regulated, averse from discipline, discontented, and in some cases actually disloyal.” It was a fitting testimony to both the predictable and the unintended consequences of British colonial education.
Zareer Masani is a historian, author and broadcaster. His latest book is Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (Bodley Head, 2013)
This article was taken from issue 8 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in February 2018
5th August: The watershed moment in political history
Posted on Aug 04, 2021 | Author ASHWANI KUMAR CHRUNGOO
FRAGRANCE OF IDEAS
The modern history over the last two centuries holds to its chest a number of dates that have assumed a great importance in the historical flow of events. Some of these dates are recognized as watershed moments while some have assumed their importance as pivotal mile stones. In connection with the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the most important event that brought Kashmir within the fold of India, afresh, politically and administratively, after the medieval Mughal rule, was in the beginning of the 19th century.
It was on 3rd July 1819 that Jabar Khan, the Governor of the Durrani Empire of Afghans in Kashmir lost the battle against the Sikh forces in Shopian hills and thus Kashmir was brought under the direct rule and control of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the emperor of Lahore state. Thus the first Sikh Governor of Kashmir was Dewan Moti Ram and Pt. Birbal Dhar was appointed his Chief Advisor & Peshkar.
Consequent upon the death of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh in 1839, the Britishers unleashed a series of conspiracies against the Lahore state. It ultimately broke into the first Anglo-Sikh war during the year 1845-1846. The Sikhs were defeated & thereby the Treaty of Lahore was signed between the British and the Sikhs. This treaty was followed by one more treaty called the Treaty of Amritsar.
The Treaty of Amritsar was signed on March 16, 1846. This treaty between the British Government on one part and Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu (one of the important generals of Lahore State) on the other laid foundations of Dogra rule in Jammu and Kashmir. It concluded on the part of the British Government by Frederick Currie, Esq. and Brevet-Major Henry Montgomery Lawrence, acting under the orders of the Rt. Hon. Sir Henry Hardinge, G.C.B., one of her Britannic Majesty’s Privy Council, Governor-General of the possessions of the East India Company and by Maharajah Gulab Singh in person. It founded the then state of Jammu and Kashmir under the overall suzerainty of the British Parliament. Maharaja Gulab Singh hence paid the amount of Rupees seventy five lakhs as the amount of indemnity of war to the Britishers as per the Treaty that Sikhs were supposed to pay in accordance with the Treaty of Lahore.
12 November 1930 assumes importance because it was on this day that the first Round Table Conference was convened and initiated in London in which the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh represented the Association of the Princely Ruled states of India. During this conference, he advocated the independence of India and also said that after the departure of the Britishers from India, the Indians would themselves decide about the future plan of action. This annoyed Britishers and July upheaval in 1931 in the valley was thus one of the offshoots of the impact of the first RTC held in the British capital.
Ist August 1947 is important historically and politically because it was on this day that the lease deed, that gave control of the region of Gilgit to the Britishers for 60 years in 1935, was cancelled by the Maharaja of J&K. The Dogra kingdom was effectively again in charge of the region which appointed Brig. Ghansara Singh as its Governor in the province of Gilgit.
Due to the armed aggression of Pakistan in September-October 1947, immediately after the independence from the Britishers, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession with the Union of India on 26th October 1947. It came to be recognised as the “Vilai-Divas” (the Day of Accession) and reincarnated the soul of 3rd July 1819.
From 1947 to 1957, J&K was virtually ruled by Decree and there was no constitution and the applicability of the Indian constitution was also very limited. The Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir which established the framework for the state government of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was adopted on 17 November 1956, and came into effect on 26 January 1957. With this was initiated a separate political identity with the constitutional support leading to political and constitutional separatism.
On the basis of an agreement signed between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah on 13 November 1974, the Sheikh assumed the office of Chief Ministership of Jammu and Kashmir on 25th February 1975. With this got initiated a deep rooted conspiracy to lead J&K into the political mayhem and upheaval afresh which ultimately resulted in the indoctrination and radicalization of the Kashmir society. What happened thereafter is history.
On 19th January 1990, Kashmiri Pandits -the indigenous people of Kashmir, were shown the road of exodus in Kashmir due to the spread of militancy and selective killings. This day was later recognised as the “Holocaust Day” by the displaced Kashmiri Pandit community thereby the issue of ethnic cleansing was brought on the world platform by the exiled community.
The Parliament of India adopted a unanimous resolution on Jammu and Kashmir on 22 February 1994 thereby enunciating that the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir (& Ladakh) have been, are and shall be an integral part of India. It also said that Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression.
While all the above mentioned dates are undoubtedly important milestones, but August 5th, 2019 is the watershed moment in the political history of India and especially of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state (now UTs of J&K and Ladakh). It reverses the line of politics in and around Jammu and Kashmir and has the potential to undo the wrongs done during the last one century. The outstanding performance of the parliament in this regard with the support of the 3/4th majority in Lok Sabha and 2/3rd majority in Rajya Sabha, across party lines, is simply unprecedented and unparalleled.
The happenings of August 5th 2019, putting an end to the applicability of Article 370, abolition of 35A, dissolution of the separate constitution of Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcation of J&K into two Union Territories, are a complete reversal of the political blackmail legacy of the last seven decades. It has opened the showers of human rights, fundamental rights and equal rights for all irrespective of caste, creed, gender and social or political background in the two Union Territories carved out on this date.
Truly, it reflected the political will and determination of the central government in the most unambiguous manner in relation to J&K. It brought all Indians at par with the citizens of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. This bold and long pending step undertaken by the government led by the PM Narendra Modi and guided by the Home Minister Amit Shah is not only historical and path-breaking but is also tantamount to realisation of the promise that fathers of the Indian Constitution gave to the Constituent Assembly. They had promised that the Article 370 was a transitory and temporary provision which will go away with the passage of time. The Modi government with a thumping vote translated their spoken words into action on the ground.
This watershed moment paved way for reshaping and reconstructing the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir by raising its strength and opening new vistas for the unrepresented sections of society to get their due through Delimitation process. It gave virtual freedom to the people of Ladakh to choose their future under the constitution of India and leadership of the central government. It also took away the opportunities of majoritarianism, political blackmail and double-talk in public life.
Thus, for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, a new dawn emerged out of the sheer darkness of the past follies and failures. The action of 5th August 2019 recreated a fender against the political felony. It is a guarantee to rebuild Jammu and Kashmir with the guiding doctrine of ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas, sab ka vishwas’…..!
(Senior BJP & KP Leader, Incharge: J&K BJP Political Feedback Deptt, Author & Columnist. Feedback: email@example.com)
Inuk leader Mary Simon named Canada’s 1st Indigenous governor general
Inuk leader and former ambassador Mary Simon has been chosen as the next governor general — the first Indigenous person ever to be appointed to the role.
During a news conference across the river from Parliament Hill this morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the Queen has accepted his recommendation to appoint Simon — a past president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization — as the 30th governor general.
“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” said Simon from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
“Indeed, my appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history.”
Simon is an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, a village on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec. She was born to a local Inuk woman and a fur trader father who worked at a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost.
WATCH: Mary Simon becomes Canada’s first Indigenous governor general
Governor general-designate Mary Simon says she is honoured and humbled to be named to the viceregal post. 1:01 Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as both the ambassador to Denmark and for circumpolar affairs. 1:01
Simon, who is bilingual in English and Inuktitut, attended the federal Fort Chimo day school in the Nunavik region.
Asked about her lack of fluency in French, Simon said she never had the opportunity to learn Canada’s other official language while at this institution — a school that has been the subject of lawsuits over the mistreatment of students by administrators.
“I was denied the chance to learn French during my stay in the federal government day schools,” she told reporters. She promised to learn the language while on the job.
Simon made her opening remarks in Inuktitut. It was a powerful moment for Natan Obed, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and a member of the advisory board that helped select potential candidates.
“For a long time there have been barriers in place for First Nation, Inuit and Métis in this country, whether it’s because of systemic racism, whether it’s the fact that Indigenous languages are not official languages and therefore First Nation, Inuit and Metis are passed over because they might not have bilingualism in English and French,” he said.
Simon said that she lived a “very traditional lifestyle” growing up in a subarctic region, but she also learned from her father, a white man originally from Manitoba, about the “non-native world.”
WATCH: Mary Simon talks about her childhood
Governor general-designate Mary Simon describes her early life 2:41 Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as the ambassador to Denmark. Simon also was a host with CBC North. 2:41
“Combined, these experiences allow me to be a bridge between the different lived realities that together make up the tapestry of Canada,” Simon said. “I can relate to all people no matter where they live, what they hope for or what they need to overcome.”
After her schooling, Simon worked as an announcer and producer with CBC North before starting a decades-long career advocating for Indigenous rights.
She helped negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, a landmark deal between the Cree and Inuit in Quebec’s north, the provincial government and Hydro-Québec.
Widely seen as the country’s “first modern treaty,” the agreement saw the province acknowledge Cree and Inuit rights in the James Bay region for the first time — such as exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights and self-governance in some areas. It also offered financial compensation in exchange for the construction of massive new hydroelectric dams to fuel the growing province’s demand for new energy sources.
Canada’s 1st Arctic ambassador
Simon was subsequently elected president of Makivik Corp. in 1982, the organization created to administer the funds the Inuit received from the development on their lands. The organization now manages tens of millions of dollars worth of investments, including an ownership stake in Canadian North, a major air carrier in the Arctic.
The president of of Makivik Corp, Pita Aatami, said that in Nunavik they all know the Queen’s new representative as “Mary.”
“We are extremely proud of her appointment,” he said in a statement.
“This is a new chapter in Canada’s relationship with Inuit, First Nations, and Métis. Having an Indigenous person as the Crown’s representative in Canada sends a strong message to the nation, and to the international community.”
In 1986, Simon was tapped to lead the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a group created in 1977 to represent the Inuit in all the Arctic countries. At the ICC, she championed two priorities for Indigenous Peoples of the north: protecting their way of life from environmental damage and pushing for responsible economic development on their traditional territory.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon arrive for an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
As governor general, she will serve a vital constitutional role; past governors general, most recently Michaëlle Jean, have had to adjudicate constitutional disputes. She’s also no stranger to Canada’s Constitution.
As an Inuit leader, she was on hand when the Constitution was repatriated in the 1980s. She was part of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s attempts to amend the Constitution as part of the Charlottetown Accord process in the early 1990s.
In 2002, former prime minister Jean Chrétien named her Canada’s first Arctic ambassador, a position where Simon worked closely with other circumpolar countries to bolster co-operation in the region. She also served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.
She served two terms as the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Indigenous organization that works to advance Inuit rights. Her focus at the ITK was on advocating for more resources for young people in the North, and she accepted former prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the past treatment of Indigenous peoples in the residential school system.
“Today after 154 years our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet the moment,” said Trudeau.
“It is only by reaching out to those around us, it is only by building bridges between people in the north and south, just like in the east and west that we can truly move forward.”
WATCH | Trudeau announces Mary Simon as the next governor general of Canada
Trudeau announces Mary Simon as the next governor general of Canada 1:24 Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as both the ambassador to Denmark and for circumpolar affairs. 1:24
Her appointment comes during a time of reckoning in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples — after radar technology discovered what’s believed to be the unmarked graves of hundreds of children near former residential schools.
When asked about her unique position as the first Indigenous governor general, Simon said she doesn’t see any conflict between her identity and her new role.
“Because as the Queen’s representative in Canada, I am very concerned about the circumstances that led to some of the events that we are seeing today. I do understand as an Indigenous person that there is pain and suffering across our nation,” she said.
“When I was asked whether I would take on this important role, I was very excited and I felt that this was a position that would help Canadians together with Indigenous Peoples.”
Monica Ell-Kanayuk, the president of the ICC, said Simon already has experience representing the Crown.
“As Canada’s former ambassador to the Arctic, and ambassador to Denmark, our new governor general has experience acting on behalf of the Crown and understands the challenges faced by Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” she said in a statement.
“Canada has appointed a skilled diplomat to a position that can contribute to the reconciliation process Canada is engaged in.”
Obed said Indigenous people have a complex attitude toward the institution of the governor general’s office.
“There have been conversations over the past two decades about whether or not Canada is ready for an Indigenous governor general and whether that would be appropriate,” he said.
“So it is a longstanding political conversation. Absolutely, it’s not black or white. Many Indigenous people have negative feelings toward that institution, but that’s not all Indigenous people.”
The Native Women’s Association of Canada congratulated Simon but said she “is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance.”
“To achieve true reconciliation, the federal government must re-examine its appointments of ministers to lead departments that have a profound effect on Indigenous lives – the departments of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services,” said the group in a statement.
“It is time that those two ministries are led by Indigenous people. It is time for the government to get out of the way and to allow Indigenous people to manage their own affairs.”
Trudeau criticized for his vetting of Payette
The appointment comes more than five months after Julie Payette resigned from the post after a scathing external review found she had presided over a “toxic” and “poisoned” workplace at Rideau Hall, with episodes of “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.”
The third-party review gathered testimony from more than 90 people and was triggered by a CBC News story about alleged mistreatment of staff by Payette and her second-in-command, who also later resigned. Payette has said she takes workplace harassment seriously.
Payette offered her congratulations and support to Simon today, tweeting that she is “at her disposal” while she transitions into the new role.
Besides being the Queen’s representative in Canada, the governor general also serves as commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces and represents Canada at events, ceremonies and official visits at home and abroad.
Julie Payette resigned from her post as governor general in a cloud of controversy on Jan. 21. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
One of the governor general’s most important responsibilities is to ensure that Canada always has a prime minister and a stable government in place that has the confidence of a functioning Parliament.
Simon said she has not talked to the prime minister about a looming election.
The governor general’s other duties include:
Presiding over the swearing-in of the prime minister, the chief justice of Canada and cabinet ministers.
Summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament.
Delivering the speech from the throne and giving royal assent to acts of Parliament.
Signing official documents and meeting regularly with the prime minister.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole applauded Simon on her appointment.
“This is an important day for both our country as a whole and particularly Indigenous peoples,” he said in a statement.
“The role of governor general is important in unifying our country and bringing Canadians together. I wish her well in this role.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also welcomed Simon’s appointment.
“She has had an impressive career and continues to break down barriers as the first Indigenous and first Inuk governor general,” he tweeted.
“We also hope that today marks a new era for the hard-working staff who support the Governor General. "
After critics accused him of failing to properly vet Payette, the prime minister launched a new advisory board — chaired by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and the country’s top bureaucrat, interim Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette — to find a new governor general.
Mary Simon and her husband Whit Fraser leave after an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, has been named as Canada’s next governor general — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
The board drafted a short list of candidates for Trudeau to consider.
Opposition parties had questioned Trudeau’s decision to not use former prime minister Stephen Harper’s advisory committee process to suggest suitable candidates and suggested Trudeau got swept up in the celebrity status of Payette, a former astronaut.
Since Payette’s resignation, Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner has been juggling his top court duties with serving as acting governor general.
It’s not clear yet when Simon will officially take over the role.