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Send an aboriginal to Rideau Hall

With the native peoples of Canada, one thing is constant. In terms of the public consciousness, they are an afterthought. Intermittent pangs of sympathy and concern have supplanted our former condescension. But, by and large, they are still looked on as substrata, forefathers to forget.

It's a distressing condition, one not easily changed. But there's a plan in the works in the Prime Minister's Office that could help change perceptions. It is to make an aboriginal the next governor-general.

The office, like many in this country, is usually alternated between anglophones and francophones. Initially, only viscounts, lords, earls and dukes got it. As for a native Canadian -- a Cree, a Mi'kmaq, a Dene -- not in your life.

But, this time, it's different. The idea of sending a native Canadian to Rideau Hall bubbled up last year and might have happened then. But there were complications because of the election and the minority government, and Adrienne Clarkson's term was extended into this year.

The name mentioned for the post is long-time native-rights advocate Georges Erasmus, the 56-year-old former president of the Dene Nation and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He was born in the Northwest Territories and came to public prominence early. Bushy haired and eloquent, he was all over the television screens. He turned the AFN into a powerhouse and was co-chair of Brian Mulroney's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He was sometimes referred to as the 11th premier in Confederation.

In 2002, John Ralston Saul called on Mr. Erasmus to deliver the LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture on the future of Canadian democracy. He is now based in Ottawa, where he heads the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which distributes $350-million to address the effects of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools. With his polish and political experience, Mr. Erasmus could be a good fit for Rideau Hall. (Also mentioned as a possible choice is Roberta Jamieson, the Mohawk from Grand River who was Ontario's first female ombudsman.)

More important than the name, though, is the idea. A spark of imagination would light up the Martin government if it goes through with this. A native Canadian as governor-general would give the first nations a presence they've never had before. The post is the most dignified in the country, and dignity is something that aboriginals have rarely been accorded.

Ms. Clarkson -- forget all that silliness about her spending a few ducats -- has elevated the governor-general's role from a sleepy hollow to a position of high visibility and cultural significance.

It seems only reasonable that a representative of the first nations should occupy Rideau Hall. The modern tradition of "alternance" need not always apply only to anglophones and francophones. It cannot always ignore the other founding peoples.

The new appointment will not be made until the summer. The government initially was considering astronaut Marc Garneau for the post, but Mr. Garneau is young and his time may still come.

With an aboriginal as governor-general, we will be served with a constant reminder of native issues and issues of the North, where Canada's future lies. Some of the rooms of our history, evoked in Charlotte Gray's The Museum Called Canada, will finally be opened up.

In his LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture, Mr. Erasmus reminded Canadians of the plight of the native peoples. He noted that, in the United Nations quality-of-life index, Canada always rated at or near the top of the countries deemed best to live in. But as for the nations within, the Indian reserves, the story was darkly different. They would place 63rd on the list, Third World status.

"The greatest challenge to the world community in this century," Mr. Erasmus said, "is to promote harmonious relations between peoples of disparate origins, histories, languages and religions who find themselves intermingled in a single state."

It is a challenge that Canadians have to face right in their own backyard. And it is a challenge better met if the forgotten peoples are finally brought to centre stage.

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