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Canada Tasha Kheiriddin: Box-ticking 'diversity' appointments aren't the only way for Ottawa to represent today's Canada

00:34  21 july  2021
00:34  21 july  2021 Source:   nationalpost.com

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What does it mean to “represent Canada” in the 21 st century? We are a nation of two official languages, 10 provinces, and three territories. Forty-one per cent of us are first-or-second generation immigrants. Eighty-one per cent of us live in cities, the rest in rural or small-town communities. In terms of gender and orientation, the LGBTQQIP2SAA acronym keeps growing. And dozens of First Nations, speaking about as many languages, call this land home.

a person standing in front of a flag: Mary Simon, Canada's new governor general, is seen at a press conference at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, is the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. © Sean Kilpatrick Mary Simon, Canada's new governor general, is seen at a press conference at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, is the first Indigenous person to serve in the role.

In other words, Canada may be the most diverse country on the planet. And increasingly, we demand that our public institutions reflect that reality. Trouble is, you can’t encompass our entire range of diversity in each individual appointee — as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s two most recent appointments aptly illustrate.

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Canada’s new Supreme Court justice Mahmud Jamal, named to the High Court in June, is a brilliant bilingual jurist born in Kenya to Ismaili parents who made their home in Edmonton — but he is not female or First Nations. The incoming governor general, Mary Simon, scheduled to be sworn in this month, is an accomplished diplomat from northern Quebec of part-Inuk heritage who has championed Indigenous rights for decades — but while she is fluent in English and Inuktitut, she does not speak French.

While both appointments have been greatly praised for what they are — the promotion of two eminently qualified, respected people who represent not only diversity, but excellence — they have also been criticized for what they are not: aka, perfect. Simon’s appointment has drawn the most controversy, due to her lack of French, which she ascribes to her education at an English-only federally run day school. Over 400 complaints have been lodged over the appointment with the commissioner of official languages, who is launching an “investigation” into her appointment.

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It’s hard to see what such an inquiry will involve. Will the commissioner Zoom-call the Queen to ask her if she was unduly influenced in her approval of the nomination? (Assuming that she takes the call, I doubt that her Majesty will be very, er, amused.)

There is no question that over the course of her decades-long public-service career, Simon could have tried learning French. And there is no question that she needs to be able to speak and understand French to fully carry out certain duties, both at home and abroad. She has promised to learn, a pledge which will no doubt be closely scrutinized in the coming months.

This does little to satisfy her critics, notably in Quebec. The outcry there is about more than representation, however; it comes at a time when French is increasingly seen as under attack . Projections from Statistics Canada suggest the percentage of Quebecers speaking French will decline from 82 per cent of people in 2011 to 75 per cent in 2036. At the same time, Canada’s self-definition as a country of two founding peoples is being challenged by both newcomers and Indigenous Peoples.

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In response, Quebec’s legislature introduced Bill 96, which would demand greater compliance from business with Quebec’s Charter of the French Language. The federal government also introduced Bill 32, which would promote French immersion across Canada, require that all future Supreme Court nominees to be bilingual, and increase immigration from French-speaking countries in provinces outside Quebec. The goal, in the words of Minister of Official Languages Mélanie Joly, is to “counter and remedy” the decline of French in Canada.

Simon’s appointment, however, does not portend the demise of the French fact. If anything, her recognition that she must learn the language reaffirms that linguistic duality remains a defining part of Canada’s identity. We must also remember that simply ticking boxes is also no guarantee of success. Former Governor General Julie Payette was fluently bilingual, an astronaut, and had schools named after her. She also left her post in disgrace, after being accused of creating a “toxic workplace” at Rideau Hall.

It is possible to both respect history and reflect change, as embodied in both Simon’s and Jamal’s appointments. That’s something we should all remember as our nation navigates discussions of diversity, representation and equality in the years to come.

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