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The House: Is it past time Canada had an Indigenous governor general?

The federal cabinet minister leading the search for a new governor general says background checks on the short list of candidates are nearly finished.

But Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc isn’t saying how many names will be sent to the prime minister, or whether the search committee has been instructed to include a nominee with an Indigenous background.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the terms of reference that we made public around the advisory group … the prime minister asked the group to consider the diversity of the country and to look at potential candidates who represent that diversity,” LeBlanc said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC’s The House.

The minister made a point of saying that Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is a member of the advisory panel.

inuit tapiriit kanatami president natan obed
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed. (CBC)

“And I think it’s fair to say that we were not insensitive to the importance of considering Indigenous candidacies as well,” he said.

The largely ceremonial vice-regal position has been vacant now for more than four months. Former astronaut Julie Payette resigned the post in January after an independent report said she had presided over a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall.

CBC News: The House23:02An action plan on ending violence

Former chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Marion Buller, chair of the National Family and Survivors Circle Denise Pictou Maloney and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett each provide reaction to the federal MMIWG national action plan. 23:02

The third-party review was triggered by a CBC News story quoting a dozen confidential sources who claimed Payette and her former chief of staff, Assunta Di Lorenzo, mistreated staff.

Anxious to avoid another appointment that ends badly, the government made background checks into potential candidates more extensive than usual this time.

LeBlanc acknowledged in the interview that he got ahead of himself back in January when he told CBC the search for Payette’s successor would only take a matter of weeks.

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Julie Payette resigned from the governor general’s post after an independent report concluded that she had presided over a hostile work environment. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

“The good news — and we’ve considered dozens and dozens of potential names — the good news is our work is largely finished, we’re concluding what I hope would be the final week or so of the normal background security checks, vetting that will take place by senior officials of the government,” he said.

“So we’re very confident that when we do give the prime minister the short list that he asked us to prepare, all of those important and necessary checks and vetting processes will be done.”

When asked how many names are on the short list, LeBlanc refused to be pinned down and joked that the number is somewhere between one and ten.

Canada has never had an Indigenous governor general. Some observers have suggested in the past that such an appointment would be an important symbolic gesture.

Others, including First Nations author Robert Jago, argued back when Payette was appointed in 2017 that an Indigenous appointment would be little more than window-dressing at a time when so many Indigenous issues remain unresolved.

Last month, New Zealand appointed the first Indigenous woman to serve as governor general. Dame Cindy Kiro, a well-known children’s advocate, is the third Māori to hold the post. The first, Sir Paul Reeves, was appointed in 1985.

The federal government is under enormous pressure right now to show some progress on Crown-Indigenous reconciliation — in the wake of this week’s reports on undocumented deaths at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and fresh calls for Ottawa to move faster on implementing the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

kamloops memorial parliament hill
A memorial for children who died at a Kamloops residential school on Parliament Hill. (Brian Morris/CBC)

“It’s long past time for a indigenous governor-general,” said the inquiry’s chief commissioner Marion Buller, who added she believes the public would support such an appointment.

“I think it would make a difference because that person would have the opportunity to cast a light on Indigenous issues in Canada and serve as a bridge-builder to a new relationship.”

Trudeau has promised to rebuild the relationship with Indigenous communities since taking office, and to take steps toward meaningful reconciliation.

LeBlanc told The House the events of the past week are among many troubling and difficult moments on that journey.

“So obviously there is a heightened awareness,” he said. “The time is long overdue for governments, plural, to look at the diversity of the country, including obviously the contribution of exceptional Canadians from Indigenous communities that can serve across the board in positions of leadership in the public and private sector.”

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