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Saturday, September 18, 2021

From Nunavik to Rideau Hall: How Mary Simon’s home will shape her future as Governor General

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KUUJJUAQ, QUE. — In the Inuit region of Nunavik in northern Quebec, the family and friends of Canada’s newest Governor General, Mary Simon, swell with pride as they reflect on how far she’s come.

The former ambassador and prominent Inuk leader, who was installed at the country’s 30th Governor General on Monday, was born in one of the area’s tiny villages, Kangiqsualujjuaq, located on the east coast of Ungava Bay.

It’s a place where the treeline fades into tundra, the huskies roam free, and the stunted vegetation remind of the perseverance it takes to survive.

“The land teaches a lot. The land teaches you to respect. The land teaches you to be human to everyone,” Annie Popert, Simon’s sister, explained to CTV News.

Popert said her sister learned some of her most profound and enduring lessons from the land, as she fondly recalled them picking berries together as children in the summertime.

Those lessons appeared to serve her well as she navigated the trials of attending a federal day school in Kujjuak – a 40-minute flight southwest of her birthplace – in the 1950s.

“With Mary… we always knew that something perhaps special would come about,” Popert shared.

Simon’s strength of character was tested, and perhaps forged, during those years at a government-run school where Indigenous children were forced to speak English as their Inuit culture was systematically washed away.

Popert remembers her brother Johnny and his friends arriving late for school and one of the teachers would shoot a BB gun at their legs as punishment.

“That was pretty awful to watch,” she said.

Dennis Lock, Popert’s son and Simon’s nephew, shared his thoughts on what his aunt’s new role as Governor General means to his people.

“It’s what the country needs right now,” he said, particularly in light of the recent discoveries of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children who died attending residential schools across Canada.

“With everything that’s been going on with all the kids they’ve been finding…” Lock said before trailing off. “I’m getting emotional.”

As Lock steers a boat down the Koksoak River, the land where the “old Kujjuak” is located is visible. That’s where Simon and Popert’s family used to live, until after the Second World War, when the Americans turned over an airbase to the Canadian government and the community resettled there.

Returning to Kujjuak’s former location, however, is how Popert reconnects with her childhood.

“We lived here for a good number of years when my father was transferred from the Kangiqsualujjuaq outpost camp,” she said.

Popert and Simon’s father, a white man who spoke Inuktitut, ran a Hudson Bay Company trading post, which is how he met their mother, an Inuk woman. The family moved around Nunavik when the children were young before settling on Kujjuak.

Willy Etok’s father used to trade fur with Simon’s father at the Kangiqsualujjuaq outpost camp. He said Simon will make a difference in her new role as Governor General and put their people on the map.

David Annanack, the mayor of Kangiqsualujjuaq who grew up with Simon, is of the same opinion.

“Yes it will for all the First Nations. It will help them to create their future because we’ve been put aside too long,” he said.

As Popert tours her old homeland, she’s reminded of her late grandmother and the stories she would tell of overcoming adversity.

“I think the resiliency is in me and my siblings and Mary, but it’s in all Inuit,” she said.

It’s that spirit that will guide Simon in her new position, according to Popert, and help her to achieve a brighter tomorrow for generations of Indigenous Peoples to come.

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