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Mary Simon appointed Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 17, 2021

The appointment of Inuit leader Mary Simon as Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General July 6 came at a judicious moment. 

“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” said Simon during the press conference to introduce her as the representative of the British monarchy and Canada’s official head of state. “Indeed, my appointment comes at an especially reflective and dynamic time in our shared history.”

Born in 1947 to an Inuk mother and a white fur trader father, Simon was raised in Kuujjuaq along with seven siblings and had a traditional Inuit upbringing heavily influenced by her maternal grandmother. After completing her schooling, Simon worked with CBC North before beginning a long career advocating for Indigenous rights. 

Elected secretary to the board of directors of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, she helped negotiate the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement – the first modern treaty that entrenched constitutional safeguards for Inuit people of Nunavik and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee.

In 1982, Simon was elected president of Makivik, the corporation created to administer the agreement’s funds in Nunavik. That year, she played a role in the negotiations that entrenched Indigenous and treaty rights in the repatriated Canadian constitution. That and Simon’s numerous subsequent efforts to promote Inuit self-determination rendered her a central figure in the struggle for the rights of Indigenous people.

“Hearing her first words in Inuktitut, proudly stating where she’s from and who her family members are – that just changes the game for so many people who might not imagine themselves in leadership roles,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, who represents Inuit across Northern Canada. “Her identities and her values will be on full display for the time she serves. And Inuit can be proud that Mary is there representing our culture.” 

Obed was part of an advisory group that considered the candidacies of more than a hundred people after former astronaut Julie Payette resigned as G-G in January in turmoil over allegations she presided over a toxic working environment. 

With Simon’s extensive qualifications and knowledge, Obed says Simon’s appointment wasn’t “exclusively a diversion tactic” for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to score political points in the wake of the national trauma caused by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

Inspired by oral history and her grandmother’s dream of reuniting Inuit around the world, Simon contributed to the creation of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 1977 that brought Inuit from Canada, Alaska, Greenland and later Russia together for the first time. 

She became the first Inuk to serve as Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, during which time she negotiated the creation of the Arctic Council and served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark. More recently, she founded the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation and has developed important policies and programs supporting the environment and other key issues affecting the North.

Among numerous distinctions, Simon is an Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General’s Northern Medal, the Gold Order of Greenland and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award. In her new role as the Queen’s representative, she will be responsible for bestowing similar honours to others, resolving constitutional matters and potentially dissolving Parliament in the event of an election. 

While several Indigenous leaders saluted Simon’s accomplishment, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) pointed out in a statement that she “is being asked to serve the senior role in what is still a colonial system of governance.” 

NWAC added that “it is time for the government to get out of the way to allow Indigenous people to manage their own affairs,” suggesting that the departments of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services should be Indigenous-led. 

“The governor general has an obligation to not be partisan, but they also have an obligation to speak out on social justice issues,” commented Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “Because if you’re not able as the Queen’s representative to speak out against social and economic injustices, what is the purpose of this?” 

In Quebec, Simon’s inability to speak French caused some controversy. French-language instruction wasn’t offered at the federal day school she attended in her youth, but she promised to study French in order to conduct her duties in both official languages, as well as Inuktitut.

A compensating factor, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, is that Simon’s familiarity with the legacy of residential schools and day schools will help Canada grapple with their continuing impacts on Indigenous people across the country.

“Governor General Simon is someone who has had to make space to be heard in places where Indigenous women have been excluded, silenced and ignored,” added Turpel-Lafond. “She has done so, not by yelling or pushing, but by being consistently kind, brilliant and thoughtful, thus formidable.” 

While Simon acknowledged the pain and suffering caused by colonialism, she said she didn’t see any conflict about being the Queen’s representative in Canada. With her mixed heritage and worldly experiences, she will focus on advancing reconciliation among the peoples of this land.

“These experiences allow me to be a bridge between the different lived realities that together make up the tapestry of Canada,” Simon said. “I can relate to all people no matter where they live, what they hope for or what they need to overcome. The past is something that we have to come to terms with, but I am going to look forward to ensure Canadians together will build a better Canada.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.