On September 8, 2022, Canadians added to their communal list of unforgettable moments-in-time. ‘Where were you when you heard the Queen was dead?’ Only one person in all of Canada can answer that question this way: that they were serving as the Queen’s representative in Canada, in the Governor General’s official residence in Ottawa, when the call from Buckingham Palace came into Rideau Hall.
There are many great Indigenous leaders throughout the land, and many accomplished Northerners, who continue to make important contributions to this country. But there is only one Governor General. Mary May Simon is both the first Indigenous person and first Northerner to ever hold that office in Canada—a country largely shaped by its vast North.
News of Queen Elizabeth II’s death would ring around the world, but Simon was first in this country to be called to attention by it. No other living Canadian has had that experience. (It’s only happened once before to another Canadian-born Governor General—Vincent Massey, seventy years ago. Back in 1952, he had been on the job for less than a week when he got word that King George VI was dead.) This time, in 2022, it was Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving British monarch the world has ever known. She not only made history, but lived through so much of it during her reign. How fitting that the news of her passing first be shared in Canada with another history-making woman, yet someone different from her in so many ways.
A humble, Inuk woman playing the squeeze box accordion in her sock-feet before a gathering of family and friends—it’s not an image typically associated with a Governor General, the Queen or King’s representative in Canada. Yet as I prepare for a scheduled conversation with Ms Simon, that’s the memory that springs to mind.
Over the years I’d worked as a Northern and national reporter, and later, while serving as a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, I’d had many encounters (and a deepening friendship) with Mary Simon, herself a one-time broadcaster, as well as a long-time Inuit leader and international diplomat. Canada now calls Simon “Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Governor General,” but she is still just Mary to many—and she doesn’t want them to forget that.
I can still picture her with that accordion, a musical clue to recent centuries of Inuit history, and all that has been imported into Arctic realities by European ships with human, material, and attitudinal cargo. Some of it, including musical instruments and songs, have been embraced and adapted to Northern social norms. Simon can hold a room together with the gift of her unassuming presence, and her ability to play just the right song for the moment, as with so many other spaces she has commanded over the years.
Musicianship is one of the lesser-known talents about Simon. But on the scales of public service and Indigenous activism, her deft range of accomplishment and diplomacy are becoming increasingly familiar, as she now performs her latest role as Canada’s 30th Governor General. From remote and rural to regal and royal, she moves back and forth with ease. She presents in this new role as if pitch perfect for the times, when reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians preoccupy today’s governments and wider society, together with mental health crises, natural disasters and human displacement, diversity and inclusion, child care and protection, economic development and the growing gulf between haves and have-nots.
These are all familiar tunes to Simon. The same issues have preoccupied much of her prior professional life, whether negotiating regional land claims or fighting for recognition of Indigenous rights at national constitutional conferences. Simon has served in elected leadership internationally (as chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference) and nationally (as the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), as well as in diplomatic roles as the first Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, and the Canadian Ambassador to Denmark. She has also worked as a consultant and advisor on Northern mental health and Inuit education.
The call about the Queen’s passing was just the latest in a whole year of firsts for Simon. And what a year it has been. First, getting immersed into the role of the Governor General within Canada’s particular government system, a Constitutional Monarchy. But then, to face such a relentless pile-on of unanticipated demands: a persistent world-wide pandemic; the confirmation of growing numbers of unmarked, residential school graves of Indigenous children; a federal election; the swearing-in of a new government; a first Speech from the Throne; a Covid vaccination protest and related truck blockades that immobilized Ottawa for weeks; an official visit to the Queen in London; a return visit for Diamond Jubilee celebrations; a royal visit to Canada by a future king; a papal visit by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. And then, the sudden and unexpected death of the reigning monarch.
That’s not to mention Simon’s regular French lessons, the combined backlog from Covid and the abrupt departure of predecessor Julie Payette, and related work to repair morale. All of this was squeezed in on top of Simon’s more predictable duties: welcoming new ambassadors to Canada from around the world; inspecting troops and annually remembering the fallen as Commander-in-Chief of Canada’s military services; leading state visits abroad and presiding over them here at home; convening and hosting meetings with leaders and influencers; visiting provinces, territories, and as many communities, school kids and ordinary Canadians as possible; and celebrating some of the outstanding individuals and achievements in our midst.
When I got a chance to speak with Simon recently, she recalled how the lessons engrained in her Northern upbringing—about family, language, cultural teachings, and the land itself—have helped see her through.
It all began July 2021, when Simon got a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that interrupted an east coast summer holiday, and her fall plans for berry-picking back home in Nunavik. Within weeks, she was the star of the installation—that’s the official ceremony that gives a Governor General their first chance to introduce themselves and their priorities to the country. This Governor General showed up for it wearing a mask. But if the Covid pandemic had imposed a dress code for the event, it could not hide the Northern influence. For this big moment, Simon’s dress and jacket featured the style lines and beadwork mastery of fellow Inuk Julie Grenier.
It was also her first chance to name her priorities: reconciliation, nature and climate, mental health, education, youth, diversity and inclusion. While all are national in importance, they also reflect specific Northern needs and realities, with reconciliation an issue that also touches all the others.
“If you are a Northerner, always a Northerner. It’s a feeling of belonging,” says Simon, adding even in Ottawa, you see it with people who bring their own food to the hospital. “I was at the Akausivik health centre today and a worker said, ‘We have a whole caribou upstairs thawing.’ This is in the health centre in downtown Ottawa. It happens all the time,” she laughs.
Simon is sure to bring Northern concerns to light as Governor General. “I have always said that Canada is an Arctic nation, because the northern part of Canada is huge. We have to remember that. There have been times when the Arctic has been forgotten by other parts of the country, because its isolated population base is small compared to the rest of the country.”
Back when she worked with foreign affairs, she says it seemed the Arctic was treated as a boutique issue at times. “If something happened, you paid attention. Otherwise, you were best to leave it alone. So, I really advocated for ‘Sovereignty begins at home.’ There can be military activity but it shouldn’t be the dominant thing that’s going on in the North. It’s better to have healthy, vibrant communities that are thriving, which we need to work on much more. And that is a good way of telling the world that this is our country. That concept of Northern communities being there to help Canada observe what’s going on in the North is important.”
Geopolitical conflicts are bringing increased attention to security issues around the world, she says, and the Arctic is not exempt. “These are things we need to talk about as a country and I think I am able to contribute to that conversation.”
Simon brought another twist to Installation Day. For the first time in Canadian history, the maiden speech from a Governor General began in an Indigenous language, Inuktitut. Simon then re-introduced herself with another name, Ningiukudluk, so-named after a midwife at her birth 75 years ago at the Hudson's Bay Company Post in the tiny northern Quebec community of Kangiqsualujjuaq. She mischievously told Trudeau the name means ‘bossy little old lady.’ It was an obvious tease, but also fair warning, publicly, to the man she would soon be talking to, privately and frequently, over her term of office, asking questions, offering quiet advice.
That name has served her well over her lifetime, often being the only woman in the room. “If any names do inspire an individual, yes, it served me well. I had to be assertive, not aggressive. Being assertive meant I had to work harder in that all-male setting, to become a political representative. It’s not easy being a female in those settings in those positions. Once you have the confidence to be who you are and believe in what you do and believe in what you say as being the truth, you can overcome the feeling of being inferior. I think inferiority complex is one of those big barriers that women face, especially in the political field. A lot of younger women do break away from that with higher education, assuming senior roles within organizations and governments. We need more of that.”
Now she’s in a job that can feel lonely for a different reason; a belief among many Canadians that it’s an outdated role in a colonial government system. “All in all, I concluded that this was a good thing, the right thing to do, because of the experience I have of over 40 years of working on Indigenous rights, and knowing Canada pretty well. I felt I could contribute in helping Canadians and Indigenous people work together in a more positive way, to be much more inclusive and to recognize and respect Indigenous cultures and languages, and getting that conversation going.”
When Simon was Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, she says she was able to influence the outcome of the Arctic Council, and the role that Indigenous people have. “I fought tooth and nail for that,” she says, adding that working from the inside—be it government or inside Rideau Hall—isn’t always a negative thing. “Once you get in here, the bigger part of the Governor General’s job is not just ceremonial. It’s connecting with Canadians. I have the convening power that really brings people together. I can call different events and different meetings. I can talk to the Prime Minister on a regular basis about different issues, and I can see ministers any time I set up something with them. I think the hope is way bigger than I thought.”
She says it almost with a giddy sense of awe and amazement at her new and privileged powers, and her good fortune to have landed where she is. That includes the elevated role, and elevated life in one of the fanciest old homes in Canada, complete with guards, chauffeurs, and house staff. Has it gone to her head? No sign of that. Rather, she soaks it all in with visible regard for all those helping her out, whether with their own professional expertise, or with practical care. I saw first-hand the teary-eyed response to Simon’s spontaneous hug of thanks to a senior member of the dining-room staff after all the extra work of her installation celebrations. The gesture had nothing to do with protocol. It was just a Mary moment of human kindness, genuine gratitude, and respect for all. Simon values teams.
Despite the trappings of semi-regal life, she does not sugar-coat Canada’s history of colonization by the British and the French. Nor is she an apologist for the Queen. When I noted the Queen was on the throne for almost a decade before Indigenous people in Canada had the federal right to vote, she quietly asked: “Do you think that was the Queen’s fault?”
“Maybe no one brought it to her attention, and that’s on Canada, not the Queen. I do know that the Queen has listened when things are brought to her attention. I know that when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau went to the Queen in England to ask about patriation of the Canadian Constitution, she insisted that for that to happen, the Indigenous peoples of Canada would have to be involved. I know that. I was at the table for those constitutional talks with prime ministers and premiers in the 1980s here in Canada. I know about the delegations of Indigenous people who went to speak to the Queen before those talks ever began. She listened.”
When it comes to the importance of bringing Northern and Indigenous concerns to wider attention, Simon is now uniquely qualified and positioned to do that. For beyond the many ceremonial, celebratory and operational duties of the job, the Governor General is also the symbolic upholder of Crown-Indigenous relations.
Canada was constructed as a nation-state on the foundation of long-established commitments by the British Crown. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 included a promise of non-interference in the lives of Indigenous people already inhabiting the lands, recognizing their prior presence and rights. Other historical and modern-day treaties have created more specific obligations between the Crown and respective Indigenous nations as legally-binding contracts, also often described as sacred covenants.
That has not changed over time. Nor has the expectation by Indigenous leaders that those promises will be kept. What has changed is the role of the Crown itself. That is where today’s Governor General sits—in the tight, sometimes uncomfortable space between the modern-day Crown and its inherited obligations to the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Simon understands that better than most. As the first Indigenous Governor General, she knows there are heightened expectations of her around that aspect of the job: the balancing act between promises made and promises kept. She also knows that is exactly where the gaps always seem to lie.
“Because when a lot of Indigenous leaders talk to me, they always refer to the treaties. They want those issues brought to the attention of the Crown,” she says. “I think there’s a big educational part to it for Canadians, as well as the royal family and that is the relationship that the Crown has with Indigenous peoples. Because the Crown is with the federal government. The old treaties, yes, that relationship is with the Crown, but it’s really the federal government that has to implement those, so I think that part has to be understood in a better way. If the old treaties can’t be looked at to see where the significant issues are, then that part of the relationship isn’t going to evolve. I think you can do that through the broader theme of reconciliation. That’s why I always talk about reconciliation being about healing, and addressing the historical wrongs, and being able to recognize that this actually happened in Canada. Work with it. Try to bring about a better understanding.”
That’s not the only reason Simon is hanging her hopes on reconciliation. It is the continuation of the promise she made in 2014 when she became an honorary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her public commitment to ongoing reconciliation was informed by her own childhood experiences, not as a residential school survivor, but as one of the children left behind.
“When I had a chance to talk about it publicly, all the emotions came forward and it was hard for me,” she says. “I was always fearful that my story wasn’t very important compared to all that others were going through. It wasn’t about sexual abuse, being sent away. Grade One to Six was one classroom, one teacher, and the policy of the day. The teacher made it quite clear we could not speak our language in school or on school grounds. On the way to school, we would be laughing, skipping, fighting with the boys, chatting with each other in Inuktitut, and as we got close to the school we would say, ‘Stop Talking!’ We wouldn’t even talk English. We just stopped talking altogether.
“At the end of Grade Six, kids were sent away to continue school. Kids didn’t want to leave. They wanted to be with their family. But when I wasn’t included in that group with my friends, my father went to register us to go, because he thought that was the only way we would get an education. The administrator said we weren’t eligible because our father was a white man. We were the only family in Kuujjuaq refused. After church, my mother would stop to see her friends. Women would come and hug us and would be crying. They missed their children so much that they almost treated us like we were their children. We were the only kids in the community. All our friends were gone. The winters were long and lonely. My father home-schooled us. If he hadn’t, we would never have been educated.”
No surprise that one of her Governor General priorities is towards a more equitable education for today’s children. “I am a firm believer that we have to teach all our children about what really happened in Canada, to teach in their schools, in their homes, in their communities, about the relationships between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians,” she says. “So that they won’t say—like people tell me every day—that they didn’t know anything about this history. If we can help young people understand that, and that Canada is very diverse, then I think they will end up being leaders who understand Canada better.”
This first year has been a consolidation of Simon’s longstanding commitment to causes such as education and mental health. It has also been a deeper immersion into the whole country, some of it devastating: her May visit to Kamloops, B.C., to honour the one-year anniversary of confirming children’s graves at a residential school site; her September visit to James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, in the aftermath of mass stabbing deaths in the isolated, under-served community.
“Before I was installed, I wasn’t as aware as I am today about the country itself. I was more focused on Inuit and Indigenous things. I have a better idea of how Canada is feeling right now,” she says. “Everybody was shocked to find that there were actually unmarked graves in Canada. It woke Canada up. At James Smith Cree Nation, one of the front-line people said to me, ‘Why does the system move quickly when there is a situation like we have had? They always wait until after the fact to give you all the help that you need. We always wait, Canada, until it comes to a crisis point.’ I said, ‘I understand; it happens in my family too.’ My family is not exempt from the trauma. I have advocated for many years for mental health services to be improved. Before, I was doing it for the North, but now I am doing it for the country.”
If those were among the emotional lows, meeting Queen Elizabeth II was among the highs. The Queen had put her final seal of approval on Simon’s appointment last summer. But not in the usual way. Due to Covid, this Governor General met the Queen on-screen, and got stamped into authority via Zoom. So, there was no need for pomp and ceremony when the in-person meeting finally happened, months later. Instead, just an unforgettable private tea-party.
“The Queen was a very hardworking woman. She was very inspirational. She was also very down-to-earth and welcoming. You had to remember she was the Queen, Her Majesty. She certainly didn’t act that way. She just sat down and talked to us about daily life. She was so knowledgeable. She knew up-to-date information about events all over the world, including here in Canada. We had a great conversation. She made the tea herself, put the leaves in the teapot, poured the boiling water in, and asked, ‘Would you care to cut the cake for us?’ And I cut the cake! And then the funny story about Whit and the cup! There were three cups, one of them bigger than the other two. And she looked at Whit and said, ‘This cup is for you because you’re a big fella.’ That was so funny.”
“Whit” is Whit Fraser, her husband, formally and uncomfortably titled the Vice-Regal Consort, already familiar to many as a long-time reporter and storyteller specializing in the North, head of the Canadian Polar Commission, and executive director to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Now he’s an author with two books anchored in Northern stories, and another in the works. To Simon, he is a valued partner.
Tea at Windsor Castle was a day to cherish. Just a few months later they would be back in London, but this time to mourn the Queen’s death with fellow Commonwealth leaders and world dignitaries in majestic Westminster Abbey.
Apart from sadness about the Queen’s passing, it was also Her Excellency’s first meeting with the new King Charles III, whom she had met earlier in the year while he was prince. Simon’s already thinking about ways they might work together, despite newly-emerging and recurring questions about the future of the monarchy in Canada.
“When the prince was here in May, he was very keen on talking about reconciliation. I was able to have a very good discussion with him about what kind of approach he should be taking. And now he seems very keen and interested in pursuing the Indigenous-Crown relations. I will be able to contribute to that dialogue. That part is important. That conversation about the monarch has been going on for a long time in this country. It’s not a new thing. The Queen was loved; she had 70 years to grow that affection. She was very young when she became Queen. The King has to earn his affection. I know him pretty well, not as well as I will in the future.”
But is Canada evolving away from the monarchy? “If it were to move away, it would have to involve a big alternative conversation. Canadians deserve to know that, before anything is to happen. If I work myself out of a job, that is okay too, but I don’t think that will happen any time soon. My role is to support the King, and to support his role in Canada, and I will do that until my term is over or until things change.”
If you ask about outstanding images of the year, Simon circles right back to the North: the 3rd Arctic Arts Summit, last June in Whitehorse. The event is built on foundations dear to her heart: the attachment to land, territories, histories, and cultures as fundamental to the identity of peoples and societies; and a commitment to building an equitable, sustainable, just, and collaborative future for all. Surrounded at that gathering by diverse cultures and artistic expression from the circumpolar world—it might have felt like home. To Simon, it must have looked like reconciliation.
“When people were talking about reconciliation at the beginning, they were talking about it as a project. I always thought, why is reconciliation a project? Reconciliation seems like a broad term. But in my language, in Inuktitut, it is about relationships. It is a way of life. It is not something that ends. Some people talk like that. When is reconciliation going to stop? It’s not. Reconciliation is going to be for life. We have to work to be a strong country, the stronger the better. It’s a beautiful country. I think there was a period where people did give up on each other, but we are trying to build that back. Canada is ready to work on reconciliation. I’ve been told that by thousands of Canadians. What am I going to finish with? I don’t really know yet, but it will come together.”
Governors General leave behind some tangible markers of their particular term of office. One is the carved, wooden plaque bearing their name. Each one adjoins the others along the oak walls of the official office they have shared at Rideau Hall. Simon’s wooden plaque already stands out as the only one with Inuktitut syllabics. Another legacy item is an official coat of arms, designed with symbols of each Governor General’s individual roots and common ties to this high office. Simon’s will be remembered for its unmistakably Northern icons and images.
Simon also hopes her Northern-influenced priority of reconciliation will have lasting importance: “That all Canadians will have a better understanding, not just about what happened to Indigenous people in this country, but also about the importance of Indigenous people to the history of this country. That our systems and institutions will begin to recognize and validate not just Indigenous traditional knowledge, but also the contemporary realities and legitimate roles of Indigenous peoples.
“There is still so much work to be done to live up to the promises of the treaties and the Crown, and I hope my time as Governor General can serve to advance that work, to a point where people are more easily able to work together, more equality in the country. To me it’s all doable. It’s just the commitment that’s required to do all this.”
Finally, she hopes the spirit of her Governor General’s motto will also stick: Ajuinnata. It’s a phrase of survival and determination, whether in the face of storms, starvation, or stalemates. On the land or in community, in personal or political circumstances: when the going gets rough, you find a way to carry on.
“I’ve had these situations where you fail. You have to accept the failures as well. I have my own days where I feel things are not going as they should be. You just have to keep going.”
Today, as Canada and the world face new and relentless challenges, the 2022 Northerner of the Year hopes the spirit of that motto may leave her lasting imprint on this country: “Ajuinnata. Let’s keep trying. Let’s keep going. Never give up.”