After the resignation of Julie Payette as Governor General in January 2021, Canada went through a period of time, longer than at any other time in its history, without a Governor General before a new one was chosen. This time, the appointment would make history as Mary Simon took over the post.
Mary Simon was born on Aug. 21, 1947 in what was then George River, Quebec, a small village in the far north of the province. She was the second of eight children. Her mother was Inuk, while her father was English Canadian and the manager of the local Hudson’s Bay Company post. At the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t allow white men to marry Indigenous women, but it was rarely enforced.
Simon grew up at Fort Chimo, 156 kilometres to the southwest of where she was born. Through her early life, she would learn the traditional Inuit lifestyle that involved living off the land with her extended family. She would say in 1999,
“It was an uncomplicated, very fulfilling way of life. The kind of life that brings inner peace.”
In 1953, Simon appeared on the cover of Moccasin Telegraph magazine, a now long-gone Indigenous affairs magazine.
While Simon would learn much about her Inuit culture, her father also made sure that she learned about his own culture. She would say that her father never talked about himself much but he showed by example and his actions how much he respected the culture of Simon’s mother and the life of the north.
Simon was also incredibly close to her grandmother, who taught her much about the Inuit culture. She would say in 1984,
“My grandmother was an incredible woman, exceptional, a very strong character, and she was very instrumental in shaping how I feel today. I learn something every day and I hope I’ll be like her, 80 years old and learning something new.”
For a time, she was schooled at a federal-run school before she was homeschooled and eventually graduated through the use of correspondence courses. Due to the fact her mother had married a white man, Simon was not considered Inuit and could not get federally-sponsored schooling. Her father would ensure his children put in their school hours at home, and he would check their homework.
She also attended a school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when she lived with friends of her family.
From 1969 to 1973, Simon worked as a producer and announcer of the long-running CBC Radio show, Northern Service, which broadcast letters and news to the Arctic. She would also teach Inuktitut at McGill University
After her time at CBC, she found a new calling in her life, advocacy for the Arctic and the Inuit who lived there. In 1967, she would marry her first husband, Robert Otis. The couple would later divorce and she would marry George Simon.
Simon was elected to the Northern Quebec Inuit Association board of directors, which was an organization that advocated for the rights of the Inuit. It also focused on providing the Inuit with a stronger voice in the negotiations going on over the huge James Bay Hydro Electric Project.
The work of the organization would lead to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, the first comprehensive Indigenous land claim settlement in Canadian history.
In 1978, Simon was elected as the vice-president of the Makivik Corporation, which administered the terms of the agreement through the protection of Inuit lands and investing the $120 million the Quebec government had provided for compensation.
She would say,
“There were a few aboriginal people on one side, and the government negotiating with you with a lot of resources available to them.”
This would involve her taking on Rene Levesque, the premier of Quebec, who had promised to honour Indigenous rights in the province, something no other province had pledged to do at that point. He stated their rights were protected by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights. Then, when he passed legislation that overrode the charter to end a teachers strike, she asked him what stopped him from doing the same to the Indigenous people. Levesque said he would never do that, but Simon kept on him about it. Bob Epstein, an Ottawa consultant would say,
“She took him on and she was dynamite. He tried everything he could to shake her, logic, anger, every technique that there was, but she was really something to watch. It was just the two of them and you could see he respected her, that he knew he was dealing with someone with a very good mind. In the end, he didn’t prevail.”
In 1983, Simon was appointed as the president of the organization, serving until 1985.
During the 1980s, Simon also served on the Inuit Committee on National Issues. This involved her taking part in federal and provincial conferences, where she argued that Indigenous rights and equality needed to have a clearer understanding and equality. Due to her work and the committee’s, section 35 of the Canadian Constitution was rewritten to protect Indigenous rights. During the negotiations, she would be dismissed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who said,
“I wish you and your sisters would take it out of your head that somehow we are deliberately trying to frustrate the concept of equality.”
Simon pushed back, stating that it was essential the law make it clear men and women would be able to pass on their Indigenous status, regardless of whether they married non-Indigenous people. She argued that it should be clear so that they could move onto other issues while ensuring Indigenous women would have their rights protected. Trudeau argued back that the Charter protected against any discrimination previously written into the Indian Act.
She would say of those negotiations,
“Whenever we tried to talk about rights with governments over the past year, they looked as if we were crazy. Rights, you want to talk about rights? No. Let’s talk about broad, unenforceable principles.”
She would add in the same interview in 1983,
“The Constitution deals with fundamental rights which are universal to aboriginal people. Our differences could have been worked out on another level at a later date.”
For Simon, she felt that she had to do the things she did because she believed that the Inuit and Indigenous people across Canada had a distinct identity that had to be recognized and affirmed throughout the country.
She also took part in every First Ministers conference from 1982 to 1992, and the Charlottetown Accord negotiations.
She also served as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference from 1986 to 1992.
In the early-1990s, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Simon served as the secretary and co-director of policy.
In 1993, Simon was one of the nine community leaders appointed to the Nunavut Implementation Commission, which would negotiate the creation of Nunavut in 1999. She also served as the Chancellor of Trent University from 1995 to 1999.
In 1994, Simon married her current husband, Whit Fraser. That same year, she was appointed as Canada’s first arctic ambassador. She would say,
“Expectations are high in the North. I am expected to deliver.”
In her role, she was constantly travelling, which was difficult for her at times as she was often away from family. She said in 1996,
“The hardest part of my job is being away from my family so much.”
In 1996, she would establish the Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation and sustainable development among the countries, eight in all, that have territory in the Arctic.
In 1997, Simon was appointed one of three Canadians on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation of NAFTA, and became its commissioner one year later.
From 1994 to 2003, Simon was Canada’s Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, and also served as the country’s ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2001. She was the first Inuk to hold the rank of ambassador.
On June 11, 2008, Simon was one of the Indigenous leaders to sit on the floor of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized formally for Residential Schools.
She would say
“The words chosen to convey this apology will help us mark the end of this dark period in our collective history as a nation.”
In 2017, she was the Minister’s Special Representative for the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In that role, she delivered a report called A New Shared Arctic Leadership Model, which would set the stage for new policy and program development to support the Arctic and its residents.
On July 6, 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Simon as the new Governor General of Canada. The announcement was made in the Canadian Museum of History.
Trudeau would say,
“It is only by building bridges, bringing between people in the North and South, just like in the East and West, that we can truly move forward. Mary Simon has done that throughout her life. I know she will continue paving the path ahead and we will all be stronger for it.”
Simon would make her first remarks as Governor General designate in Inuktitut before switching to English. She would say,
“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and is an inspirational moment for Canada and is an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation.”
She had been considered for the position since 2010. After the appointment of Julie Payette and her resignation, Trudeau had a panel consider over 100 names for the shortlist of candidates, with Simon being the overwhelming choice.
With her appointment, she became the first Indigenous person to serve in the role.
She said of her appointment
“My appointment reflects our collective progress towards building a more inclusive, just and equitable society.”
Overall, her appointment was greeted with positivity. Both Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh welcomed her appointment. Former Governor General Julie Payette also offered her own congratulations and stated she was at her disposal as she transitioned into the new role.
There was the concern among some that she could not speak French, which broke with tradition for the Governor General role. The Bloc Quebecois would state that the Governor General role was not elected, representative, nor legitimate.
Simon said that she is bilingual as she speaks Inuktitut and English, and she would ensure her office would conduct business in both official languages, while also promising to learn French.
She would say,
“Based on my own experience growing up in Quebec, I was denied the chance to learn French during my time in the federal government day schools. I am deeply committed to continuing my French language studies and plan to conduct the business of the Governor General in both of Canada’s official languages, as well as Inuktitut, one of many Indigenous languages spoken across the country.”
On July 22, she held an audience with the Queen, although this was done virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
On July 26, she was sworn in as Governor General.
As Governor General, she considers ajuinnata an important theme for her mandate. There is no one-word translation, but the word means many things including a vow or promise not to give up, or a commitment to action no matter how daunting the cause.
On Oct. 17, 2021, Simon made her first trip abroad as Governor General when she visited Berlin on a state visit. She would meet with President Frank Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Feb. 6, 2022, Simon paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her Platinum Jubilee. She said,
“Much has changed in the last seven decades. We extended the hand of friendship to nations around the world. We made advancements in medical research, most recently with vaccines. We established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and took part in its work. We saw the first Canadian named governor general, then the first woman and now, the first Indigenous person.”
Three days later, she tested positive for COVID-19.
She would officially meet the Queen for the first time in person on March 15 at Windsor Castle when the Queen hosted an afternoon tea with the couple. The Queen and Simon would discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Canadian convoy protests and how they both recovered from COVID-19.
On April 1, Simon issued a statement after Pope Francis apologized to an Indigenous delegation at the Vatican. She said that the apology is “one step on the road to reconciliation”, and the Pope has “committed to visiting Canada to continue the reconciliation journey with Indigenous peoples on their own lands”
In May, Simon hosted the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, and the Duchess of Cornwall when they toured Canada. She would also travel to London in September to take part in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
As we are still in the first year and a half of her time as Governor General, I can’t say much more about her but when her time as Governor General comes to an end, I will update this episode.
Information from Governor General of Canada, Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Whitehorse Daily Star,
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