Governor General apologizes for saying Indigenous people were immigrants

In a ceremony honouring leadership on Indigenous issues at Rideau Hall, Gov. Gen. David Johnston has apologized for calling Indigenous people immigrants to Canada.

Johnston was referring to his comment during an interview with CBC Radio’s The House Saturday. “We’re a country based on immigration, going right back to our, quote, Indigenous people, unquote, who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago,” he said. 

A firestorm of criticism on social media ensued as some said the comment revealed a deep-seated colonial mentality.

On Monday, he addressed the controversial remark during his opening statement in Ottawa.

“The better country we desire is above all a more inclusive one that supports, encourages and acknowledges the contributions of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples, the original peoples of this land. Let me apologize for not expressing myself correctly on this matter recently. Indigenous peoples are the original peoples,” Johnston said.

Famous recipients

Some 30 recipients, including Mohawk activist Sylvia Maracle and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, were honoured at Rideau Hall, as Johnston handed out honours such as the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division), the Polar Medal and the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers.

Order of Canada Downie 20170619

Gov. Gen. David Johnston honours Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie with the Order of Canada in Ottawa. At the same ceremony on Monday, Johnston apologized for saying on the weekend that Indigenous people were immigrants. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Some of the recipients are well known, including actress and former Liberal MP Tina Keeper and Inuit NHL player Jordin Tootoo, while others have been change makers in their communities outside the national spotlight, including Jarret Leaman, who has supported LGBT Indigenous youth, Imelda Perley, an Indigenous languages teacher from St. Mary’s First Nation in Fredericton, N.B, and Chief Bill Cranmer, from Alert Bay, B.C., who has sought to recover potlatch artifacts confiscated by the Canadian government in the 1920s. (The government instituted a ban on the ceremonies as they were seen as an impediment to assimilation.)

Others, including Hovak Johnston and Marjorie Tahbone, were celebrated for protecting Indigenous cultural practices by reviving traditional Inuit tattoo art and reconnecting Inuit women with an art form that was “on the verge of being lost.”

The three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — Wilton Littlechildren, Senator Murray Sinclair and Marie Wilson — were also honoured by Johnston with the meritorious service award for shouldering the responsibility of the commission “with fortitude, compassion and perseverance.”

“Over six years, they led the examination of the Indian residential school system, combing through myriad documents and witnessing the courage of survivors who shared their stories. Their final report invites all Canadians to confront the inequities of the past, and calls on governments and individuals alike to move forward, with greater understanding, towards reconciliation.”

Actor Tom Jackson, a past recipient of the Order of Canada, brought Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, to tears after the formal ceremony with a moving call to action to improve the standing of the country’s Indigenous Peoples and “see a better Canada.”

Tom Jackson brings PM Trudeau to tears2:48

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