Dear Governor Simon, beware of Greeks bearing gifts

Why has the Canadian prime minister appointed an Indigenous woman as a governor-general?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference with Mary Simon to announce her as the next Governor General of Canada in Gatineau, Quebec on July 6, 2021 [Reuters/Patrick Doyle]

Too often, journalists are preoccupied by the “who” to bother considering the “why”.

This grating tendency has been on predictable display in the aftermath of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s belated – as some insist – decision to appoint an Indigenous woman as governor-general earlier this week.

Mary Simon, an Inuk leader and former diplomat, is the first Indigenous person to serve as Canada’s titular head of state.

“Canada is a place to find a people, a people who serve those around them; who tackle big challenges with hope and determination and, above all, who never stop working to build a brighter tomorrow. In other words, people like Mary Simon,” Trudeau said while introducing the new governor-general at a press conference.

The prime minister was applauded by a gushing establishment press that always gushes and applauds when another governor-general is unveiled in typically subdued Canadian fanfare. (More on this later.)

Still, several writers chastised Trudeau for not appointing Simon governor-general in 2017, having chosen instead to elevate astronaut and engineer, Julie Payette, to the frilly, ceremonial position. (More on Payette later, too.)

Left unanswered amid all the gentle tsk-tsking – so as not to deflect from the historic moment – was why Trudeau had dithered in making his “ground-breaking” selection.

The answer lies in Trudeau’s signature cynical, calculating modus operandi.

In 2017, Trudeau and his haughty corps of know-it-all advisors likely calibrated that there was little to no public relations dividend to be derived by making an Indigenous person governor-general, although several eminent candidates were being promoted at the time.

The persistent, grinding injustices and deprivations that remain a common aspect of the lives of many of Canada’s First Nations were not on much of the media’s myopic radar. They did not matter then.

So, Trudeau and always-on-the-lookout-for-profitable-optics-company opted to replace an ageing male academic with the young, smart and exuberant Payette to confirm the new prime minister’s “feminist” bona fides – which did matter then.

To prove the politically expedient point, one approving admirer/commentator promptly congratulated Trudeau for his “inspired choice by a feminist prime minister who frequently talks up the importance of female heroes for his own young daughter”.

Parochial mission accomplished.

By 2021, however, Canada’s political and cultural landscape had changed dramatically and Trudeau, ever eager to exploit the prevailing wind, named Simon to the antiquated job to signal, yet again, his “progressive” credentials on the cusp of a federal election he is expected to call soon.

Payette’s North star-like shine had dulled, tarnished fatally by a damning report into steady and troubling allegations that Rideau Hall – the governor-general’s official residence – was rife with bullying and harassment.

Payette resigned – instantly abandoned and deemed persona non grata by the same “feminist” prime minister who had confidently insisted that “Madame Payette is going to make an extraordinary governor-general. She represents the very best of Canadian values.”

Months later, the jarring discovery of graves filled with the bodies of more than a thousand and counting Indigenous children – all victims of the church-run, state-sanctioned internment camps otherwise known benignly as “residential schools” – thrust Indigenous “issues” to the forefront of the media’s flitty consciousness.

Taken together, these two seemingly disparate events offered Trudeau an opening not only to distance himself from the Payette debacle he authored but to demonstrate the long-forgotten plight of this country’s Indigenous peoples was suddenly top of his opportunistic mind – and seize it he did.

Parochial mission accomplished – again.

But Simon would be wise to remember that the prime minister and a gallery of equally fickle pundits praising her today as a gifted and possibly transformational figurehead, once showered the now permanently-in-purgatory-Payette with the same, generic accolades using near-verbatim effusive and effervescent language.

“Ms. Payette’s life has been one dedicated to discovery, to dreaming big and to always staying focused on the things that matter most. These truly Canadian traits, along with her years of public service, make her unquestionably qualified for this high office,” Trudeau said in July 2017.

A smitten scribe wrote: “Justin Trudeau sent a powerful message by naming an engineer and scientist – and, oh yes, an astronaut as Governor-General … As a symbol of scientific excellence, Julie Payette is the woman Canada needs.”

And, finally, a dewy-eyed columnist celebrated Payette as, of course, an aspirational national symbol. “The role of the modern governor-general is now to be that kind of national symbol: Prime ministers no longer make it a political reward, but attempt to find someone above the fray who represents what Canada is, or aspires to be.”

As a republican, I am allergic – philosophically and occupationally – to these gooey, embarrassing baubles that equate a spent, anachronistic institution with “service” and amorphous, fantastical notions of “symbols” who are expected to embody and convey vague, often indecipherable “messages” by their royal-tinged words and deeds.

Despite all the silly, pretentious rhetoric, Payette turned out to be a flawed figure who reportedly berated and intimidated her staff to tears and created a “toxic workplace”.

Given Payette’s public trajectory from “modern”, dazzling “symbol” of “what Canada is, or aspires to be” to excommunicated pariah, a question comes to mind: Why would such a talented and accomplished woman like Simon possibly risk the same unhappy fate by agreeing to play an antediluvian role that, constitutionally, requires her to take orders without question from a prime minister and genuflect before a queen?

Simon is assuming a dictative post that will also mean, in large measure, having her read speeches vetted and, in some cases, written by the prime minister’s staff, ride in horse-drawn carriages at parades and pay allegiance to and say soothing things about a nation and a monarchy that has done deep, indelible damage and harm to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Ironically, just two days after Simon was christened the next governor-general, another formidable Indigenous woman, Member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould, announced that she will not run for re-election.

In a letter explaining her decision, Wilson-Raybould pointed a sharp, accusatory finger at the prime minister who had just appointed Simon.

The “crisis” facing Canadian democracy, Wilson-Raybould wrote, was the product of “the lack of inclusiveness. The power of the prime minister and the centralization of power in the hands of those who are unelected. The erosion of governing principles and conventions to the point where there are limited or no consequences for wrongful acts undertaken for political benefit”.

Wilson-Raybould’s not-so-camouflaged, stinging indictment of Trudeau’s essential, punitive character was borne of her experience as an Indigenous woman turned justice minister and attorney general who refused to placate a prime minister when he repeatedly pressured her to forgo criminal prosecution of a major Quebec-based engineering firm facing bribery and corruption charges, and strike a plea deal on the eve of a federal vote.

For defending and abiding by the rule of law, Wilson-Raybould’s loyalty, honesty and motives were “questioned” by the prime minister and his eager-to-please-the-kid-king-caucus – save one other principled minister. Ultimately, Wilson-Raybould was routed from cabinet and the Liberal Party to sit as an independent in Parliament.

To her credit, Wilson-Raybould saluted Simon’s appointment as governor-general on Twitter – as she simultaneously made, it appears, oblique reference to Trudeau’s mercenary nature. “Congratulations to Her Excellency Ms. Mary J. May Simon… grateful to have your knowledge, dignity and integrity in these challenging times.”

She could have added this warning: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.