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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Getting to know Mary Simon, Canada’s Governor General 

BY Joshua Janke Jul 3, 2024

Three years ago, on July 26, 2021, Mary Simon was sworn in as the 30th Governor General of Canada, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold the position. 

As Governor General, Simon represents the Crown, King Charles III, in Canada. While her duties are nonpartisan and largely ceremonial, the role of her position is to uphold the traditions of Parliament and other democratic institutions.

Born in 1947 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Simon returns home to Nunavik often, where she enjoys playing the accordion, berry picking, and being in nature when not working in Ottawa and visiting communities across Canada. 

Beginning her career as a broadcaster for CBC North, Simon was an Inuit representative during the negotiation for the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 as well as the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.

The Nation (TN): Your Excellency, you have had a remarkable journey to becoming the Governor General of Canada. Can you share with us how your career path led you to this prestigious position? Specifically, what were some of the significant moments and roles that prepared you for this responsibility, and how did you navigate the selection process?

Mary Simon (MS): The first time I worked full-time for the government, I was 28. That’s when I was elected to an organization board. I was quite young and getting involved in regional politics up in Nunavik, in northern Quebec, which is where I come from, a place called Kuujjuaq on the northern tip of the province. 

International work was fascinating for me because it provided me with a new vision of what this world was about. I got to meet other Indigenous people from Finland and northern Russia, and we had so much in common, even though we are all very different in terms of culture and language.

Two and a half years ago, I received a call from the government office. I wasn’t even supposed to tell my husband that I was shortlisted for the position with two other people. It took two or three months, and it was very confidential and nerve-wracking because I knew my life would change forever. 

My time in Denmark gave me an idea of what to expect if I got the position. The diplomatic life is very different from everyday life, and I knew that my experience in Denmark would help me out a lot. I got through the interviews, even though I was very open about not speaking French. I was bilingual in English and Inuktitut, and I thought this might be the one barrier that would stop me. 

Anyway, I got the job. One day, the Prime Minister called, and after talking to me for 45 minutes, he said something like, “Well, you know why I called. I wasn’t going to do this, but I’m doing it right now. I’m offering you the job as Governor General.” I was so happy I screamed.

TN: Can you tell us more about your upbringing in the Arctic and how it has influenced your journey? What lessons did you learn from your family and community that continue to guide you?

MS: It has been quite a journey, from living in the Arctic with very little, in a sense. My grandma was a nomadic person; all Indigenous people were nomadic before the colonization process. My grandma taught me so much about my history. My background is very rich, but not in a materialistic way. The Inuit moved from season to season. 

In the North, we are a people of the land. When you speak of a tight-knit group of people covering a vast area in the Arctic region, living a nomadic way of life and following the seasons and the animals, this is something special we have kept with us.

TN: As Governor General, you have emphasized several key priorities. Could you elaborate on your focus areas, particularly regarding reconciliation and the empowerment of Indigenous communities? How do you envision these efforts evolving, and what steps do you think are crucial for meaningful progress?

MS: Reconciliation is a difficult issue. People don’t like to tell stories, people don’t like to tell who they are, but that conversation has to take place. If we’re going to have a country that is premised on issues like racism and violence, we have to understand the country in a much better way, and people need to know who they are. 

Indigenous people are always saying they want to run their own affairs, so this arrangement should be made while staying in Canada, not outside of Canada, because we’ve evolved so much over 150 years. Turning the clock back may not be possible, but there are many self-government agreements that are being signed now in Canada, which allow Indigenous people to have a lot more authority over their own affairs while living in the country. 

The problem is that the services Indigenous people get aren’t enough. When you look at the communities, clean water access and health systems, we need to do more for the northern regions, which continue to have limited access to these essential services. Improving internet access, for example, would allow for an increase in mental health services for northern Indigenous communities due to the vast improvements made in online mental health services in Canada since Covid-19. 

I’ve always felt very strongly that people need to understand that our body and mind are together and one. People think they are separate, like you’re physically sick or you have mental health challenges. In the North and across the country, the inequality between the two health services is quite large. There needs to be more of a balance between physical health services and mental health services because if you’re mentally not well, then you are physically not well.

TN: Education is often mentioned as a cornerstone of your agenda. How do you see education transforming the future of Indigenous youth and the broader Canadian society? What specific changes or initiatives do you believe are necessary to ensure a more inclusive and accurate representation of Indigenous history and culture in our educational system?

MS: Education is one of my priorities. Education is key, and the role of teachers is very important. I’m using education not just in the academic sense in schools, but to educate Canadians about the country, about who Indigenous people are, and what happened in the past. There are no history books that truly reflect this. Every school should teach the real history of the country, not in a negative way, but just the history itself, what happened over the last 150 years. 

The part about Indigenous people is absent in many of the history books. A former prime minister grew up over a hill, and there was a residential school not far from his house, and he never knew. It was an issue that was never brought up, so the history of the country is important to teach in a true and more comprehensive way. Including Indigenous history is crucial. 

The role of education is very important. To get a job these days, most people want you to have a post-secondary education. In the early days, it wasn’t so much about that, but now it is. A lot of kids in the North face challenges; for instance, they go to school in Inuktitut for the first three years, then after Grade 3, they are expected to switch to English or French. This sudden switch creates a situation where, by Grade 9 or 10, many can’t catch up and drop out. This type of thing in the North has to change so that kids don’t face these problems.

TN: Climate change and food access are pressing issues in northern Quebec and across Canada. How are these challenges impacting Inuit communities, and what measures do you think are essential to address them? How can traditional knowledge and modern technology work together to ensure food security and sustainability?

MS: Access to food is of utmost importance. I just came back from one of the northernmost communities alongside the Hudson Strait, and there was great concern about how climate change was affecting the community’s ability to hunt and fish. Traditional knowledge is a very solid knowledge base, but with the changes in climate, things like weather and seasonal harvests become harder to predict. In early April, the hunters were telling me that the seasonal shift was two months ahead, and the sea ice is already melting like it does in June. 

Because this directly affects access to food, finding solutions should be a priority. We can help people adapt to the changes without giving up who they are, without giving up their culture, and without giving up their language. There are new technologies to help people who need to go out and hunt for food. 

All humans need protein in one form or another every single day, and in the North, it’s meat and fish that we depend on because when you go into the store, there’s hardly anything there. People really have to go out and hunt for their food, so to me, food access to northern communities must be a priority. 

There are lots of other inequalities. Housing is a big issue, as it is across the country these days, but in the North, it has been bad for many years. Lack of policy has been terrible. The inequality of housing is a big issue for governments in the North, even to the point where now, because of climate change, the permafrost is melting, and the houses that were built on it start to break and crack as the earth melts and shifts. There’s no way of helping them fix those problems because there’s no funding or help for them to rebuild in different locations.

TN: Adjusting to life in Ottawa must have been quite a transition. Can you share your experiences moving to the nation’s capital and how you balance living between two cultures? What has helped you stay connected to home while fulfilling your duties as Governor General?

MS: A lot of my family and my grandmother’s sisters were relocated to the high Arctic to live in another community by force. There were a lot of relocations happening in those days. 

So, when I moved to Ottawa, I started living in this huge house – it’s a beautiful house with a lot of culture and some history – and it was an adjustment for sure, but I have adjusted before. I can live in one culture one moment and then go up North and live in my own culture the next, so this transcending of both cultures makes me very fortunate. Being able to stay connected back home makes it easier living here in Ottawa.

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.