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Mary Simon installed as new Governor General

OTTAWA — Canada's first Indigenous Governor General is promising to meet Canadians across the country, understand their concerns and bring a renewed purpose to her office "to meet this moment" in the country's shared history.

OTTAWA — Canada's first Indigenous Governor General is promising to meet Canadians across the country, understand their concerns and bring a renewed purpose to her office "to meet this moment" in the country's shared history.

Mary Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, became the country’s 30th representative of the head of state on Monday. She is the fifth woman to fill the role.

Simon pledged to help the country reckon with the historical mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, including horrific findings of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, while charting a path forward.

In her maiden speech, Simon spoke about straddling the worlds of her Inuit upbringing and the non-Inuit south, and noted that reconciliation won't be completed through projects or services, but is rather a way of life that requires daily work and getting to know one another.

"To meet this moment as Governor General, I will strive to hold together the tension of the past with the promise of the future, in a wise and thoughtful way," Simon said in her speech, where at times she spoke in Inuktitut.

"Our society must recognize together our moments of regret, alongside those that give us pride, because it creates space for healing, acceptance and the rebuilding of trust. I will strive to build bridges across the diverse backgrounds and cultures that reflect our great country's uniqueness and promise."

She also spoke of the need to address climate change and the impact warming temperatures have had on the North, and her dedication to addressing mental health issues as she takes office.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Simon as his choice to be the Queen's representative in Canada earlier this month, replacing Julie Payette who resigned in January.

On Monday, Trudeau said Simon shows that true leadership is about building a brighter future for all, and not just for a lucky few, which the country needs now as it rebuilds from the pandemic.

Simon was greeted by a First Nations drumming circle as she arrived at the Senate building, and was accompanied by a traditional Inuit drummer on her way into the Senate chamber. Inside the chamber, a traditional Inuit oil lamp remained lit during the ceremony.

Once officially in the role, Simon took her seat at the head of the Senate chamber and her husband, Whit Fraser, turned to her, took a small bow and then sat down next to her amid applause.

"Clearly, this signals a further step on the path toward reconciliation, with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada starting to find our rightful place in Confederation," said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, in a statement on Simon's installation.

Cailtlyn Baikie, a 29-year-old Inuk from Nain in northern Labrador who has known Simon for a decade, said Simon will carry a heaviness in her new job, including questions about whether an Indigenous person should represent the Crown.

"I'm of the viewpoint that if you have an opportunity to shed light on something and to change the trajectory of anything that you care about, and in her case, the country, you should take it," Baikie said from Cartwright, N.L.

Baikie also called Simon a "compassionate, genuine, caring person."

Trudeau was among the 44 people allowed to witness the ceremony in person as public health guidelines set limits on attendance and mask requirements for all in the chamber.

Despite requests from officials that people avoid gathering, a crowd of people stood across the street, awaiting Simon's arrival for the ceremony.

When she stepped on to the red carpet, the crowd clapped and cheered. As the cheering quieted, someone in the crowd yelled, "down with the monarchy," before adding, "free yourselves."

There was no such yelling during a visit after the ceremony to the National War Memorial as commander-in-chief, nor when she arrived at Rideau Hall where she greeted dozens of friends and family members who lined the entrance.

But not everyone may have been clapping.

Official languages commissioner Raymond Théberge has launched a probe into Simon's selection after receiving over 400 complaints about her inability to speak French fluently.

In a statement immediately after Simon's installation, Trudeau noted she would represent Canadians in both official languages. Simon said in her speech that she had heard from Canadians encouraged at her pledge to learn the language, including offers of help.

Speaking in St. John's, N.L., Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole congratulated Simon, calling it an important day for the country, and welcomed her commitment to learn French, noting it was important for the Governor General to speak both official languages.

— With files from Emma Tranter in Iqaluit and Maan Alhmidi in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press