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Governor-General Mary Simon urges Canadians to remain respectful and maintain behaviour boundaries

Simon's remarks come amid fears about the rise in abuse online, including misogynistic, antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks.
A Canadian flag blows in the wind, with Parliament in the background.

Governor-General Mary Simon is urging Canadians not to forget “who we are” amid a rising tide of hate and division, including online abuse, and to observe boundaries of behaviour when exchanging opposing views.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail at Rideau Hall, she said Canadians are by nature very respectful, adding there’s “a lot of kindness” and empathy in the country.

“This is who we are as Canadians. And we shouldn’t forget that,” she said.

But the Governor-General said it is important that people who disagree do not step over the line into abuse.

“Not everybody agrees with each other all the time. That’s human nature. But we should have boundaries. There should be boundaries about how we present ourselves,” she said.

Her remarks come amid fears about the rise in abuse online, including misogynistic, antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks.

Ms. Simon warned that, because of the scale of online vitriol, some women are thinking twice about taking roles in the public eye.

Earlier this month, Liberal MP Pam Damoff said she will not run in the next federal election because of the toxic nature of politics. She said she has experienced misogyny, threats to her life and disrespectful dialogue.

Last year, Ms. Simon, who is Inuk, turned off the comments on her social-media accounts after receiving a stream of invective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, including racist and misogynistic remarks.

She said the abuse has still not stopped and people are finding ways to get hateful messages through, including via e-mail. She said corrosive attacks online can damage people’s mental health and there needs to be more support for people who are subjected to such abuse.

“When I went through it, I was worried. I was wondering what to do it,” she said. “It does touch you personally.”

Last month, Ms. Simon convened a symposium at Rideau Hall to discuss how people should deal with online abuse.

After the event, Justice Minister Arif Virani was criticized by the Conservatives for politicizing Ms. Simon’s non-partisan office. In a social-media post, he had referred to the Online Harms bill he is sponsoring to combat hate online and hate crimes, saying he discussed it with some attendees at the symposium.

Speaking to The Globe in a small drawing room, which was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite when she visited, Ms. Simon said conversations, even difficult ones, should be rooted in empathy and it is important that people converse in a respectful way.

“I can disagree with you, but I’m not going to call you names,” she said. “I’m a big believer in having differences of opinion and taking constructive comments into consideration.”

Ms. Simon emphasized that free speech is important.

“But the thing is, because the nature of some of the commentary that goes on online is so abusive, people feel vulnerable and isolated and scared,” she said. “They’re scared for themselves. They’re scared for their families.”

She said people in charge of universities where young women are being bullied and threatened are among those who could play a part to combat hate.

Tensions at universities have flared in recent months, including after tented encampments protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza sprung up on campuses.

Last week, the Commons justice committee heard from Jewish students who said they no longer feel safe on some campuses. Muslims leaders have reported a surge in Islamophobia in Canada, with some women having their head scarves pulled off.

Despite the abuse online, Ms. Simon said Canadians “need hope” and it is important to stress Canada’s good points.

The Governor-General who grew up in Kuujjuaq, a village on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec, speaking Inuktitut at home, said in Inuit culture there’s a resilience in the face of adversity and people tend to laugh a lot.

She said an Inuktitut maxim – ajuinata, which means never give up against all odds – could be helpful to Canadians facing hardship and abuse. Ms. Simon told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the word embodied him, during his official visit to Canada last September. She was surprised and delighted to hear him use it, and pronounce it perfectly, in his speech later in the House of Commons.

Ms. Simon thinks that children in Canada, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, should have a chance to learn an Indigenous language at school. She has taught her staff at Rideau Hall a few words of Inuktitut, including ajuinata.

“When I was growing up, I remember my grandmother visiting her friends and then when they leave, they say ajuinata – let’s keep going.”

“It’s about being in that space where you are living life to the fullest, no matter where you are.”