Who is Mary Simon, Canada's 30th governor general?
TORONTO -- Mary Simon, Canada's 30th governor general, is a former diplomat and Inuk leader who has spent decades speaking up for the Inuit and Canada's North on the national and global stages.
Fromrepresenting the Inuit during repatriation of the Constitution, to being involved in the creation of Nunavut, to spending six years at the helm of the largest Inuit organization in the country, Simon has never been shy about speaking up for her people.
But her resume extends far beyond that advocacy. 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.
During her six years leading that organization, 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.
In 2012, when CTV's Canada AM visited Iqaluit, Simon was asked to appear on the show to speak about housing issues in the Nunavut capital. She was quick to point out that what she referred to as "hidden homelessness" – people who would otherwise not have a place to live being taken in by their families – was an issue not only in the city, but in all Inuit communities, leading to overcrowding and other unhealthy circumstances.
She also spoke about the need to balance the economic development then booming in the region with education, to ensure that the new opportunities would not pass the children of the North by.
"If you can't get the children through school … they're not going to take on the jobs that are available to them up here," she said.
As her term came to an end, Simon 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.
A LIFETIME OF BUILDING BRIDGES
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. Before moving into advocacy work, she briefly worked as a broadcaster for the CBC.
At her introductory press conference on July 6, Simon said that as governor general, she hopes that her decades of experience in both Inuit and settler communities will help her be "a bridge between the different lived realities that make up the tapestry of Canada."
Her own lived reality shows the possibility of that dream, of bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in what she describes as a spirit of "common humanity." In fact, it sounds a lot like how her parents came together.
Her father, a white man, ran a Hudson Bay Company trading post. He fell in love with an Inuk woman, and risked his job by marrying her; HBC at the time did not allow its employees to marry Inuit.
The company backed down, and it wasn't long until Simon was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que. The family moved around Nunavik in Simon's earliest years, but soon settled in Kuujjuaq, Que., where Simon attended a federal day school until Grade 6 but otherwise lived what she has described 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 on July 6.
Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, described Simon on July 6 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.
Hours before her appointment was announced, 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.
CREATING HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
At 73, Simon will be the oldest person sworn in as governor general since Confederation. Only a handful have served at all past that age.
Unlike what has been the case with some older governor generals, however, Simon's appointment has not been seen as a short-term or stopgap measure. In fact, many have praised what it could mean for Canada's future and that of Indigenous Peoples.
"Young Indigenous people can't see themselves in these positions of influence. Seeing their own people in these positions will help them set their own goals and believe that they can achieve those goals," Sask. Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty told CTV News Saskatoon on July 7.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who had publicly called for the next governor general to be Indigenous, said July 6 that Simon's selection represents "an opportunity to do something different and innovative" with the role, and praised her for speaking Inuktitut at her introductory press conference as one sign that she will be a governor general unlike any of her predecessors.
"She brings forward a multitude of experience, a lot of bridge-building, solution-gathering. She brings a wide range of expertise to the office of the governor general," he told CTV News Winnipeg.
In addition to speaking English and Inuktitut, Simon said July 6 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.