Being a newspaper columnist is a tricky business. Sometimes, perhaps on rare occasions, you make a forecast or depict a scenario, and you turn out to be dead right. Sometimes you turn out to be wrong. And sometimes … you get it wrong, and then, much, much later, right.
In February 2010, the National Post’s legendary politics writer Don Martin put a moistened finger to the wind and put forward his view on who the next governor-general of Canada might be. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was faced with the intimidating task of finding a replacement for Michaëlle Jean. Martin figured he had a candidate too good for Harper to overlook.
His candidate was someone a little less well-integrated than Jean with the Liberal arts and media worlds, but nonetheless thoroughly sociable and familiar in Ottawa. Someone with no partisan taint, but with lots of experience in diplomacy, constitutional affairs, executive leadership and even circumpolar matters. And get this: the someone was even bilingual, albeit with a slight catch …
Yes, Don Martin was pretty sure that Mary Simon, “a face of the truest north,” was a solid front-runner for the viceregal job eventually bestowed on David Johnston. It seems inconceivable now, but he didn’t even make a point of mentioning that Simon would have been the first Aboriginal governor-general of Canada. Which is what she is about to become, 11 years later.
By April 2010, Martin had to admit that the cause of Mary Simon seemed to have ground to a halt “for reasons that baffle me.” One problem may have been her limited capability in French. Martin had actually approached a mutual acquaintance of himself and Simon, and had been told that she “was ‘gung ho’ to tackle the job” if approached and “would welcome the chance to dive into immersion to become fluent in French.”
That is more or less what the 2021 version of Simon told the reporters at her introductory press conference on Tuesday. No doubt it is a little easier for a prime minister named Trudeau to cut that particular Gordian knot without infuriating Quebec. And in the circumstances of 2021, it is much easier for (Quebec-born) Simon to insist that her literal mother tongue, Inuktitut, is perfectly good Canadian currency as a second-language credential.
Moreover, as a practical matter, she probably does not need to master French to get by in the viceregal post. She should be able to understand it on a page and to pronounce it credibly, but she is not going to be giving three press conferences a week nor appearing on “Tout le Monde en Parle.”
Fluency would be a lot to ask of a septuagenarian, and political promises to attain it rarely come to anything, but this is a brilliant woman. She ought to be able to acquire a bluffer’s knowledge, or a grad student’s.
I must apologize to Canada’s francophones if this sounds slightly dismissive of the standing of the French language in Canada. I would like to give them my personal assurance that I would be 99.9 per cent comfortable with a unilingually French governor-general whose credentials were otherwise good. This ought not to be expected to come about, but if it ever does, you won’t catch me going all purple-faced about it in these pages.
If this assurance is doubted, on the other hand, I suppose the complaints of anxious francophones really ought to be taken to the prime minister and not to a scribbling boob in the newspaper. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the one who has actually dismissed the requirement for fluency in both official languages, which he is eager to apply in every other segment of Canadian officialdom.
This same prime minister, if anyone needs reminding, has imposed an unprecedented “functional bilingualism” requirement on our Supreme Court ― one that leaves much or most of our country’s elite legal talent altogether ineligible to be appointed to it.
They might learn French or English on spec, of course, if they could be assured that this would get them appointed. But the prime minister has partly delegated the selection process to an advisory board, and may no longer be in a position to give anyone such an assurance, assuming the board’s independence is bona fide [theatrical wink].
When the bilingualism guideline was first introduced in 2016, it was objected to heavily by ethnic minority groups and, in particular, by Indigenous lawyers. Like Mary Simon, many of them had to work hard in youth just to acquire one of the official languages and didn’t have much reason to master the other throughout long and varied careers.
Trudeau’s insistence on bilingualism for those judges added an enormous new statistical obstruction to the already complicated quests for forensic and literary horsepower, geographic balance and racial equity. (And don’t forget gender balance ― although one notices the newest justice gives the menfolk a 6-3 advantage.)
It suited him politically, at that moment, to appear as a defender of official languages. Everyone’s had plenty of time to discover that when it suits him to do otherwise, he goes ahead and does otherwise.