The View From Here – The Governor General should exercise greater care with the terminology he uses

Tom Henihan

There is a pervasive trend to only express our values in opposition to the opinion of others, then allow those values to lie dormant.

We should personify our principles, our ethical position and moral codes; our virtues should emanate from our ordinary behaviour and not be some sleeping prince that awakens to illustrate our correctness and superiority.

A prime example is the inhabitants of social media, who from their safe place in cyberspace wait for every provocation to express their otherwise untested magnanimity. While they posture at being on the side of right, they are essentially, ethereal wisps, absent and ineffectual in the tangible world.

The Governor General, David Johnston became the object of social media scorn recently, with safe places all across the internet lighting up with righteous indignation when he committed a major faux pas in a CBC interview by referring to aboriginal people as immigrants.

In just the same way as those on social media are not genuinely righteous because they say the right things, the Governor General is not inherently malicious because he said something wrong.

However, Johnston should be held to account for the things he said as they seemed laced with nuances that are often used to dress up racial biases.

In the context of Canadians being a people who look beyond the individual to the collective, Johnston attributed this to Canada’s history of immigration saying, “going right back to our, quote, indigenous people, unquote, who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago.”

Apart from the reference to First Nations being immigrants, his parenthesis around the word indigenous, as in “our quote indigenous people unquote” could be construed as hesitation in acknowledging First Nations’ their historic, legal and moral claims to being this countries first people.

It is either naive or arrogant for the representative of a foreign monarchy in a country celebrating its 150th anniversary to attempt to define those who have been here 14,000 years.

Even allowing that Johnston’s statements had no malicious intent, greater circumspection ought to be expected from someone in his position.

Instead of going off on an ill-informed tangent, the Governor General could have used that interview to draw attention to the chasm that still exists between the abject economic circumstances in many aboriginal communities and the relative prosperity of other Canadians. He could have discussed inadequate housing, education, access to health care, suicide, and the need for safe drinking water.

Still, I believe the Governor General should be given the benefit of the doubt and that he did not wish to be offensive.

“I want to clarify a miscommunication. Our indigenous peoples are not immigrants. They are the original peoples of this land,” he wrote on Twitter and he apologized again, sincerely I believe, at an investiture ceremony where he conferred honours on 29 indigenous Canadians, reiterating, “indigenous people are the original peoples of this land.”

But it seems that Johnston just can’t help himself: his language is spiked with archaic, questionable gradations such as the Orwellian double-speak in using “miscommunication,” instead of simply saying “I was wrong,” to using the possessive, paternalistic “our” when talking about indigenous peoples.

While pouncing on every word a person might say and feigning a righteous frenzy at the slightest, innocent transgression is excessive, Johnston should be aware, in an office such as the one he holds, language is always important.

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