TORONTO — Mary Simon, who was named Canada’s 30th Governor General on Tuesday and the first with an Indigenous background, is no stranger to the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or to the issues Trudeau counts among his top priorities.
A longtime advocate for the Inuit and Canada’s North, Simon represented the Inuit during repatriation of the Constitution and was involved in the creation of Nunavut. She was named Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs in 1994. Five years after that, she additionally became Canada’s ambassador to Denmark, making her the first Inuk ambassador for the country.
During this time, she led Canada’s delegation at the negotiations to create the Arctic Council. As she detailed many years later to the University of the Arctic, she threatened to walk out of the talks over an American-led attempt to diminish Indigenous Peoples’ role in the organization.
Simon became an even more prominent figure in Ottawa after she returned to Canada and, in 2006, was elected president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
Over her six years at the helm of the largest Inuit organization in the country, Simon frequently made headlines for speaking up for oft-marginalized voices in the North, including by opposing Europe’s implementation of a ban on seal products.
As her term came to an end, she wrote a piece for the digital magazine Policy Options outlining her desire to make the Arctic a “win-win” for Canada and the Inuit. More recently, she has worked for the Trudeau government as a special representative to communities in the North.
AN HONOURED ADVOCATE
Simon’s work has also included promoting the preservation of the environment in the North – an issue close to the current government’s heart. In 2007, she spoke out against a federal plan to allow the military to dump garbage and sewage into Arctic waters.
Her main focus, however, has been on achieving equitable health care and education for all. She returned to these issues repeatedly, advocating for the people of the North regardless of what positions she held at the time. In 2018, she called for more mental health and medical support in the North after her 22-year-old niece died by suicide.
In March, an Ottawa-based Inuit health organization released a video in which Simon praised the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in a bid to address vaccine hesitancy.
Simon’s profile as a spokesperson for the Inuit is strong enough that she was one of five Indigenous representatives invited to the House of Commons in 2008 to receive the government’s apology to residential school students, and she was named an honorary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation into residential schools. She was also touted as a possible contender for the governor general role in 2010, despite her criticism of the federal government of the day over various issues.
Her resume includes a long list of honours and accolades, including investment as an officer of the Order of Canada, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and a place in the International Women’s Hall of Fame.
Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, described Simon on Tuesday as “highly, highly qualified” for the governor general role, in part because her ambassadorship also required her to represent Canada’s interests while staying above partisan politics.
Beland told CTV News Channel that there was another aspect of Simon’s life experience that might set her apart from past governors general: “She’s not a celebrity.”
Not only is she not a celebrity – or at least, she wasn’t before Tuesday – she doesn’t seem particularly interested in the lives of the rich and famous.
As of Tuesday morning, her personal Twitter account followed 478 other users, most of them relating to the Inuit, Canada’s North, Canadian politics or Canadian media.
However, the following list does provide a few signs that Simon may occasionally have interests other than advocacy – it features Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu, former Toronto Raptor Kawhi Leonard, and a handful of entertainers, including Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West.
EARLY LIFE ‘A BRIDGE’
Born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit village in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, Simon attended a federal day school until Grade 6 but otherwise lived what she described on Tuesday as a “very traditional lifestyle.
“Many months out of the year, we camped and lived on the land, hunted, fished, and gathered food, and maintained an active connection with our Inuit heritage and language,” she told reporters at her introductory press conference.
Simon’s mother was Inuk; her father was a white man who ran a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and grew to love the North. She briefly worked as a broadcaster for the CBC before moving into advocacy work.
“These experiences allow me to be a bridge between the different lived realities that make up the tapestry of Canada,” Simon said.
The incoming Governor General is bilingual, speaking English and Inuktitut. She said Tuesday that she has taken lessons in French and is “firmly committed” to learning the language.
Beland said that learning Canada’s other official language would be the biggest challenge of Simon’s early months as Governor General, but expressed optimism that she would be able to get a handle on French.
“Learning a third language should not be that difficult,” he said.
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Rachel Aiello and The Canadian Press
This story has been corrected to note that Kangiqsualujjuaq is located in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.