As a little girl, Mary Simon and her Inuit family traveled by dog sled through the Arctic region of Nunavik, in the northern Canadian province of Quebec. She learned to fish, hunt, and gather from her mother and grandmother, both Inuit, and her white father. “I lay in our family tent by the river, on a bed of spruce branches and caribou hides, listening to the early morning sounds of birds and the crunch of snow under the paws of our sled dogs.”
Simon, 73, shared her favorite childhood memory on Monday when she was sworn in as Canada’s governor general, the deputy to the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. She was inaugurated in parliament in Ottawa as the first “viceroy” of indigenous descent after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced her nomination for the mostly ceremonial post earlier this month.
The appointment of Simon, a longtime activist and diplomat on behalf of the Inuit people of the Arctic, as the Crown’s first indigenous representative in Canada, is groundbreaking. Simon, a former journalist and Canadian ambassador for Arctic affairs, helped enshrine the rights of indigenous peoples in Canada’s constitution in the 1980s. As governor general, she succeeds Julie Payette, an ex-astronaut who resigned early this year after revelations about a toxic work environment under her rule.
In addition, Simon’s appointment comes at a sensitive time for Canada. The country has reacted with shock in recent months to the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former boarding schools, where children of the aboriginal population were forced to stay for decades – in total about 150,000 children were forced into 130 of those boarding schools in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. , spread throughout the country. They were often mistreated and robbed of their cultural identity.
Simon, a former chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) international organization who is fluent in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, pledged to help facilitate reconciliation between indigenous peoples and other Canadians in her position. The finds of the children’s graves have “horrified her, as well as all Canadians,” she said. “As a country, we have learned that we need to learn about Canada’s true history. Embracing that truth makes us a stronger nation. But reconciliation is a way of life, it takes work every day.”
In addition, Simon, who for many years has been drawing attention to the drastic consequences of global warming in the Arctic region, wants to devote himself to climate change. “The Arctic is warming faster than almost anywhere else on the planet.”
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 27, 2021