Students taking virtual summer classes at Eastview Public School in Toronto were enthusiastic Monday as Mary Simon was officially sworn in as Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General.
The importance of the moment was underscored by a special guest, Elder Joanne Dallaire, who encouraged the students to ask her absolutely any question they could think of.
“The kids had a lot of questions,” said Michael Sanders, the school’s principal. “Joanne was a huge guiding influence for us.”
Eastview Public School is unique among public schools, Sanders said, in that it serves a large Indigenous population and buses in First Nations students who want to be taught in Ojibwa.
“One of the foundations and principles of our school was for students to walk in a good way with Indigenous peoples,” Sanders told CBC News.
Simon is Inuk from Kuujjuaq in northeastern Quebec. She vowed to “bring people together” on Monday as she took her oaths at the Senate chamber in Ottawa.
“I have heard from Canadians who describe a renewed sense of possibility for our country and hope that I can bring people together,” she said.
“Every day, inside small community halls, school gyms, Royal Canadian Legions, places of worship, and in thousands of community service organizations, there are ordinary Canadians doing extraordinary things. As governor general I will never lose sight of this — that our selflessness is one of our great strengths as a nation. I pledge to be there for all Canadians.”
The foundational understanding of Indigenous peoples instilled in the students at Eastview made them particularly attuned to the symbolism of Simon’s appointment.
“It’s really important to finally be able to have people hold so much importance that are Indigenous,” said Jade St. Croix, one of the students who got to learn from Dallaire on Monday.
Dallaire’s teachings were “really refreshing,” said St. Croix, who is going into Grade 12 in September.
“It goes and shows students my age and younger that if they put their mind to something they want to do, they can succeed,” she said.
“It’s so important to have everyone’s voice heard,” said Ashley Zaharia, a teacher at Eastview. “Differences are what make us beautiful.”
Joshua Stribbell, national program coordinator at Tungasuvvingat Inuit — a provider of urban community support — said Inuit-specific representation is key.
Stribbell grew up in the Toronto area but said he didn’t learn much about his own history and culture until he was in his 20s.
“Some of this area is primarily very First Nations so to see that [Inuit] visibility is very important,” he said.
“To see that it’s possible to have your voice recognized at that level is important,” Stribbell added. “A lot of Indigenous youth are often discouraged by things like racism, things like systemic barriers, so to see a lot of those barriers be broken down really opens a lot of doors for us.”
Still, he said, he isn’t ignorant of the community’s concerns around an Indigenous person serving as a representative of the Queen, given the legacy of colonization and the ongoing, devastating impact of the residential school system.
“I hope that it sparks an important dialogue,” Stribbell said.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how she does.”
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