June 8. 2023
Check against delivery
Thank you Dr. Cook for that very kind introduction, and thank you to the President and Chancellor of the University of Manitoba for presenting me with an honorary Doctor of Laws. Distinguished faculty, graduates, friends and family: thank you. This is a great honour and so very meaningful to me.
Before I begin, first let me acknowledge that we’re gathered on the traditional lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation who have nurtured and cared for the lands and waters of these places for thousands of years. Moving forward in partnership with Indigenous communities in the spirit of reconciliation and collaboration is a national responsibility that we all share.
To all the students graduating today: congratulations! I am honoured to share this day with you.
How to begin?
There have been many moments that have shaped me as a person, as a professional and as a leader. And I want to share with you some of those moments, because if ever you thought you were alone in wondering how life is supposed to unfold: think again. One moment leads to another and another. And from that we make a life. From that, we bring about change.
Your job is to attach meaning to those moments.
I was raised very much on the land, and very close to my Inuit culture in Nunavik, in northern Quebec. My mother was a unilingual Inuk—she, like my grandmother, was born into the traditional Inuit world of the Arctic. My father was born in Manitoba, at Sandy Lake, and raised in Riding Mountain National Park.
And while my education can be accurately described as mixed or varied, from all three I got the values of hard work, determination, focus and commitment to one’s principles and beliefs.
Why was my education varied you may ask? Because I was the daughter of a white man, and as such I was not permitted to attend residential school. And while this act of exclusion saved me from the horrors of residential school, it sparked in me a lifelong commitment to preserving and advocating for Indigenous rights, traditions and identities.
While I didn’t get the education I wanted or deserved, I am here to tell you that your future is what you make of it. Some of the challenges you face may also be the source of your greatest achievements in your life story. I know from experience that challenges can shape you in ways you cannot predict.
Because who could have predicted that one day I would be debating those very issues—Indigenous rights, traditions and identity—with the prime minister of the day, Pierre Elliott Trudeau?
I was 37 years old. I was a woman leader at a time when that was unexpected. And I was an Indigenous leader at a time when that was unwanted. Both those identities collided in a debate with the Prime Minister about Indigenous rights.
It wasn’t easy, but it led to these rights being spelled out in section 35 of the Constitution. I quote: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada, Indians, Inuit, and Metis are hereby recognized and affirmed.”
In 2019, the subject of my debate with the Prime Minister came full circle when the rights of Indigenous men and women were finally equally recognized in legislation with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, 2019. Change takes time, and can be so difficult and frustrating, but it can happen.
Which leads me to a day, almost two years ago, when, following a robust selection process, I was asked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if I would accept to be Canada’s first Indigenous governor general. It was a completely unexpected request. I had retired. My husband Whit and I had a cottage in Nova Scotia, and, like all Canadians, we were adapting to the realities imposed by the pandemic.
That call with the Prime Minister also came at a time when Indigenous peoples, and Canadians, were grappling with the news of the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.
I could not help but recall being in the House of Commons on June 11, 2008, representing Inuit when Canada apologized for what happened in those schools. In Prime Minister Harper’s words, “Acts that have no place in Canada.”
And so, accepting the honour of becoming governor general meant acknowledging the great responsibility of helping our country embrace its journey of reconciliation. I see it as the culmination of my life’s work. And what a journey it has been. A journey of sadness and of hope.
I have shared in the pain as I walked the grounds of the unmarked graves in Kamloops. Yet, I have also joined fourteen thousand students in a Saskatchewan football stadium talking about what they can do to advance reconciliation in Canada. There is so much each of us can do. I often say that reconciliation is a journey—one we share. It is how we relate to one another, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
It will be a long and difficult journey, forcing us to face hard truths together. Yet I found new hope sitting with Pope Francis last summer, during his pilgrimage of penance, as he acknowledged and apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
This hope turned into further action when last month, on the eve of the Coronation, Canada’s Indigenous leaders and His Majesty The King met privately for the first time and committed to shaping a renewed relationship built on trust and respect.
The King, the Pope, apologies in the House of Commons, and constitutional debates—each moment leads to another. And from there you make change happen. But success isn’t only in the winning. Success is in the process, of remaining committed to a cause, of remaining true to yourselves.
Which leads me to some final thoughts.
First, find what you love, what resonates with you, what drives you at your core.
Throughout these moments of my life, and even today, I continue to build on my work, experience and passions. I have always had strong principles and convictions on issues of equality and justice, and I seized every opportunity to advance the issues I am passionate about.
Second, get ready to engage respectfully to defend those values and beliefs.
I am inspired by the next generation that will take on the mantle of change and charge ahead. You have an awareness and respect for reconciliation and diversity that surpasses any generation that has preceded you. Every day, I see young leaders breathing new life and perspectives into old debates.
Third, don’t forget who you are.
The “real world” can be competitive and unrelenting, and it can be easy to lose yourself, to succumb to pressure, or to accept the judgement of others. But remaining true to what is important to you will always help you navigate this complex world—giving you a compass when you aren’t sure what direction to choose. My compass was, and is, equality and knowing, deep within me, that I was worth as much as any other person. And so are you.
As I started this speech, I suggested to you that your job is to attach meaning to moments in life. Today is one of those moments for you and for me. What meaning will you attach to today?
With that in mind, let me leave you with one word—an Inuktituk word that has great meaning in my life: ajuinnata. Say it with me. Ajuinnata.
It means: to never give up. To persevere in the face of adversity.
Live your lives with ajuinnata, and never doubt that the moments of your lives will be full of meaning.
Congratulations again to you, to your parents, to loved ones and friends who supported you in your success, and who lifted you up when you needed it most. I thank you again for bestowing this honour on me today. It is a moment that I will truly cherish.