‘We’ve done something so awful’: Former governors general reflect on a Canada Day marked by pain and anger

OTTAWA—As Canada Day 2021 dawns, eclipsed by the discovery of now more than 1,000 unmarked residential schoolchildren’s graves and counting, many Canadians are doing what former governors general are doing: reflecting on how we reconcile the past and the present, let alone the future.

The job of channelling the national spirit of the day often falls to the Governor General of Canada. But there is no one in that office currently, no head of state to stand on Parliament Hill — even if there were no pandemic — to articulate a Canada Day message that citizens might need to hear, even if they don’t agree.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been expected to name a governor general — possibly an Indigenous person — this week but next week appears more likely.

So the Star spoke to three Canadians who once held that office or the office of prime minister to understand how they would reflect on a national day like no other.

What emerged was a deep sense of sadness, anger, frustration, and a plea to all Canadians to finally acknowledge the truth of Canada’s colonial history and the betrayal of its promise to Indigenous Canadians.

“If we’re going to take responsibility, which we must as a country, then we have to know what we are responsible for,” said Adrienne Clarkson, a Hong Kong-born refugee from China who was Canada’s 26th governor-general, from 1999-2005.

“And if it’s 20,000 30,000 deaths, then we have to take responsibility for that. And I feel that unless we do that, we can’t proceed as a healthy nation, or look ourselves in the face.”

Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian refugee, journalist, former secretary general of the Francophonie, and Canada’s 27th governor general from 2005-2010, the first Black person to hold the post, says Canada is “a work in progress,” and this year must mark “a turning point.”

“This Canada Day cannot be, totally, you know, a time for celebration. It’s no celebration or cancellation, but it’s a call for the courage of urgent action. That’s what it is.”

Faced with the “unspeakable suffering” of Indigenous communities who live the legacy of residential schools, all Canadians must “atone for” and will feel “the sting of the guilt…that all of this was allowed to happen in a systemic way, with the authority or complicity of all governments, federal, provincial, municipal, and the churches…for more than a century, right up to the end of the 1990s.”

“We have looked the other way and have remained deaf to the constant pleas of the families, because these pleas existed, but we didn’t listen,” she said. “We didn’t care.”

But the time has come to recognize and “fully confront the devastating effects the system has had in crushing lives,” Jean said. “Its intergenerational consequences are still being felt today…We know it. We can’t deny it.”

“I think one of the essential responses, the responsibility that is incumbent upon us, is the duty to remember” and to have true empathy, she said.

“Empathy is our capacity to actually connect to the other. To actually be able to identify (with) what the other is living and is experiencing, to find yourself in the other, and the other in you. It’s really, really important.

“And that’s the call. The call is for more empathy. That’s what reconciliation is about: empathy, being able to identify to what they have suffered in that experience; and knowing that addressing it is a shared responsibility.”

Clarkson said it’s one thing to “intellectually know” about residential schools but with the finding of unmarked graves in the past few weeks, Canadians now “viscerally know” the legacy of its colonial past. And to her, she said, the news landed like a punch.

During her tenure, she was an adopted chief of the Blood tribe, who gave her an Indigenous name that means “grandmother of all nations,” she said.

Today, she said, “I am like 99 per cent of Canadians, in a state of horror and shame over the residential schools.”

Clarkson said it is “a great sadness” that there is no one in the governor general’s office at this time because the apolitical role allows a governor general to do “so much” and it was needed during “this whole time of COVID.”

“Nothing could make up for” imposing residential schools on Indigenous communities for six generations, she said, but it remains a mystery why Canada has not acted on all 94 recommendations or “Calls to Action” issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by former senator Murray Sinclair.

“We’ve all known, intellectually, we know that that’s what’s needed. Why don’t we just move on that?” asked Clarkson.

The commission identified more than 3,200 children who died at the former Indian Residential Schools, and sought more resources to fully document others. Since the commission reported in June 2015, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has confirmed up to 4,117 deaths, but many Indigenous leaders, including Sinclair, believe there are thousands more.

“I don’t know why Murray Sinclair did not get more money at the TRC to investigate this,” said Clarkson. “They could have done more at that time when everything was being discussed and we would be ahead,” she said. Six years after that report, the Liberal government recently allocated $27 million to help locate burial sites.

Clarkson said to Canada’s great shame, “we tried to break these people” and betrayed First Nations by failing to honour treaties that were signed.

“I feel this sense of…it’s like a fatalistic thing, we’ve done something so awful, we have to expiate it. And it’s like a big sin in our lives, a big, big national sin.”

In assuming the governor general’s office, both Clarkson and Jean broke barriers and represented the newer diverse face of Canada.

Now they are equally adamant: it’s long past time an Indigenous person filled that role. Both argue it is a substantive one, not just symbolic.

Jean said a non-partisan governor general who travels the country can “warn and inform” a prime minister. “Good governance has to be inclusive. It’s about understanding, with humility, as prime minister, that you don’t have all the answers, that some answers can be given to you by the citizens themselves.”

A former justice and Indian affairs minister, Kim Campbell was Canada’s first and only woman to become prime minister, if only for a few months in 1993 after winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. She has led four search committees that shortlisted judicial candidates to the Supreme Court of Canada and expects within four or five years there will be an Indigenous judge on the high court, but she also thinks it’s high time an Indigenous person held the governor general’s office.

“I don’t think having an Indigenous governor general is a substitute for having indigeneity among the people who are judging in our courts, whether it’s in the provincial level, the appellate level, the Supreme Court of Canada,” she said. “It’s not one or the other. But cumulatively, the more non-prototypical people who go in those positions, the more we are forced to broaden our sense of who gets to do that job and what kind of people they are.”

As for Canada Day, Campbell said it marks the anniversary of Confederation but “even at the time, not everybody was happy about it. The maritime provinces actually thought they got a bad deal of it.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, which only joined Canada in 1949, July 1 is Memorial Day, historically shadowed by the memory of the hundreds in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who died at Beaumont-Hamel on this day in the First World War.

Campbell says while overall Canada has much to celebrate — public health care, public education, a “functioning” but imperfect democracy — it’s important to recognize that “what we have was paid for by many people.”

“There’s a lot of things we have to unlearn. And if we have the audacity to do that, we can, you know, continue to have a great society where we rank high on the happiness list.”

Campbell and Clarkson remarked Canadians have never copied the Americans’ extravagant “July fourth stuff.” This year more than ever, the day brings Canadians “into this territory of the spiritual,” said Clarkson.

“We do have to celebrate what we are…what we are is a rather sober people who take their responsibilities seriously. And I think, yes, we can say we’ve accomplished this, and this is what we have to do with the next while. And if we don’t do that, we can’t continue.”

“If I was governor general now,” she said, “I would be crafting a speech about our relationship to the Indigenous people and looking for a way in which the nation asks for forgiveness for this.”