Indigenous leaders accuse Quebec’s premier of “belittling” Canada’s first Inuk governor general by publicly attacking her French skills after their meeting on Wednesday.
During a press briefing following Governor General Mary Simon’s first official visit to Quebec, Premier François Legault told reporters Thursday morning that while his appointment last summer is a “positive” step towards reconciliation, “it’s really not ideal that she doesn’t speak French.”
He said Simon had “more work to do” on the tongue.
“But she tells me that she takes private lessons, and that she was still able, at the beginning, to say a few sentences in French,” he added later.
The Prime Minister said he met with Simon, the Queen’s representative in Canada, out of “courtesy” even though he believes his position, and that of Lieutenant Governor, should be abolished.
“Why do we have to do this when there’s no point in saying these things? To me, it’s disrespectful,” Senator Michèle Audette of Quebec City told CTV News.
Senator Audette, the daughter of a Quebec father and an Innu mother, said Simon is bilingual because she speaks English and Inuktitut, “and in my book, Indigenous languages are part of the official languages.”
“I said openly when she was appointed — and if we meet in Quebec — I hope we can have a conversation in French as well, but I wouldn’t say to the media, ‘Well, her French isn’t was not so good… I would say rather say: “I see an improvement. I see she’s trying,” the senator said.
“As prime minister, I think that would be the way we should say things to encourage…reconciliation, or nation to nation,” she added.
“I think those comments would have been more constructive and appropriate.”
Simon’s appointment caused an outcry since she did not speak the two languages enshrined in the Official Languages Act at the time.
In fact, more than 400 complaints were filed with Canada’s official languages watchdog in the weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her to the position.
“In my opinion, this demonstrates that linguistic duality continues to be an important value for Canadians,” Commissioner Raymond Théberge wrote in a press release on July 19, 2021.
“We have analyzed the complaints received to date and have determined that they are admissible. I will therefore investigate the matter.”
Simon, who was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, attended a federal government day school as a child, where she was prevented from speaking her mother tongue, Inuktitut. She also said she was denied the opportunity to learn French at these schools.
She notably spoke French, English and Inuktitut during her inaugural Speech from the Throne on November 23.
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, said she was “dismayed” when she read what the Prime Minister said about the Governor General.
“She’s trying to learn French, so she’s making an effort to learn the language. And I don’t know what’s going on. [Legault] to learn Inuktitut,” she said in an interview Thursday.
The Premier of Quebec still has work to do to improve his Inuktitut
— Nakuset S (@NakusetS)
May 5, 2022
“So it’s really egregious that someone in a position of power like a prime minister could easily make demeaning comments like that. I was really quite shocked by that.”
It’s not just Legault’s comments about the reunion that have raised some eyebrows. Opposition MP Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he had better things to do “than meet with the representative of the Queen of England”.
In a tweet, he later said, “Colonialism and cucumber sandwiches aren’t really my thing.”
Colonialism and cucumber sandwiches aren’t really my thing. https://t.co/5L0Gu7uu6N
— Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (@GNadeauDubois)
May 5, 2022
“What is he talking about colonialism? She’s a woman who lived through colonialism and still is. So does he really think he’s in the same place as her in terms of colonialism? ” said Nakuset.
“Walk a mile in our moccasins before you talk about colonialism.”
— With files from The Canadian Press