Mary Jeannie May Simon (Ningiukudluk); diplomat, civil servant, (born 21 August 1947 in Kangirsualujjuaq, Nunavik, QC). Simon is an advocate for international cooperation in the Arctic and Indigenous education and rights. She has held multiple roles in the civil service, including secretary and co-director of policy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, secretary to the board of directors of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, and member of the Nunavut Implementation Commission. She was also the first vice president of the Makivik Corporation and the first Inuk in Canada to hold the rank of ambassador. Simon has served as the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and of what is now the Inuit Circumpolar Council. On 26 July 2021, Simon became Canada’s 30th Governor General and the first Indigenous person to serve in that role.
Early Life and Education
Mary Simon was born the second of eight children in Kangirsualujjuaq (formerly George River), a small village at the mouth of the George River on the east coast of Ungava Bay in Nunavik, Quebec. Her mother was Inuk. (See also Inuit.) Her father was a southern, English Canadian and the manager of the local Hudson’s Bay Company post.
Simon grew up in the community of Kuujjuaq (Fort Chimo), about 156 km to the southwest of Kangirsualujjuaq. She enjoyed a traditional Inuit lifestyle that involved an extended family and months of every year living off the land. In a 1999 interview, Simon shared that, “It was an uncomplicated, very fulfilling way of life. The kind of life that brings inner peace.” She began her formal education in a federal-run school but was then homeschooled and graduated through correspondence courses.
For a short time in the early 1970s, Simon was a producer and announcer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Northern Service before pivoting to her life-long career – advocacy on behalf of the Inuit and the Arctic.
Mary Simon’s public service began with her election as secretary to the board of directors of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association. It advocated for Inuit rights and a stronger voice in negotiations with the Quebec government regarding the James Bay Hydro Electric project. The organization’s work, along with that of many Cree and Inuit leaders, led to the 1975 signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement; Canada’s first comprehensive Indigenous land claim settlement. Simon was elected the first vice president of the Makivik Corporation and served from 1978 to 1980. The Makivik Corporation was formed in 1978 to administer the agreement’s terms, which included protecting Inuit land and investing the $120 million compensation fund. She also served as Makivik’s president, from 1983 to 1985.
Simon was a member of the Inuit Committee on National Issues. This committee was overseen by the advocacy group, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. In this role, she appeared at several federal-provincial conferences. She argued that despite the recently repatriated constitution, with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Indigenous rights and equality needed a clearer understanding and legal definition. Her work, and that of the committee, resulted in the reworking of what is now section 35 of the constitution. This section provides protection of Indigenous rights.
Following the 1990 Oka Crisis, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Simon served as the commission’s secretary and then co-director of policy. In 1997, the federal government appointed Simon to be one of three Canadians on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The committee brings together experts from Canada, Mexico and the United States to develop recommendations to enhance sustainable environmental protection in North America. Simon was committee chair in 1998.
Simon served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Inuit Circumpolar Council, ICC) from 1986 to 1992. The ICC represents about 180,000 Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and Canada, as of 2021. It advances Inuit unity and promotes their interests in safeguarding the Arctic environment while enhancing social and economic development. Simon was Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2003. She also served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2001. Simon was the first Inuk in Canada to hold the rank of ambassador. She said her greatest accomplishment during this time was the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation and sustainable development among the eight countries with Arctic territory.
Simon has been affiliated with the Carter Centre since 2001, serving as a counsellor for its International Council for Conflict Resolution. Founded by US President Jimmy Carter, the centre works around the world to prevent and resolve conflicts to create sustainable peace.
Simon was among nine community leaders appointed by the federal government to the Nunavut Implementation Commission on 10 December 1993. This commission negotiated the creation of the self-governing territory of Nunavut in 1999. She was also elected president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami from 2006 to 2012. It was in that role that on 11 June 2008, she was among Indigenous leaders and survivors invited to sit on the floor of the House of Commons to receive then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s formal apology for the policy of residential schools. In her speech that day she said “…the words chosen to convey this apology will help us all mark the end of this dark period in our collective history as a nation.” (See also Reconciliation in Canada.)
Simon has always recognized that education is key to improving people’s lives. She has received many honorary doctorates over the years and served as Chancellor of Trent University from 1995 to 1999. From 2008 to 2014, Simon chaired the National Committee on Inuit Education. She led the implementation of the 2011 report First Canadians, Canadians First: A National Strategy for Inuit Education. The report identified and removed gaps in education. It also reduced drop-out rates while having Inuit children taught in their language. (See also Inuktitut.) Simon was the founding chair of the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation. Since 2012, the organization has helped Inuit youth by providing safe avenues to seek help with myriad problems.
On 6 July 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that, on his advice, Queen Elizabeth II had appointed Simon to be Canada’s 30thGovernor General. Simon is the first Indigenous Governor General in Canada. Simon was first considered for the role back in 2010 but David Johnston was selected instead. The announcement was especially poignant given that, in the weeks prior to her appointment, the public was made aware of the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who had died at residential schools. Simon’s appointment had refocussed attention on systemic racial injustice. Speaking in Inuktitut and English, Simon observed, “My appointment reflects our collective progress toward building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.”
Reaction to Simon’s appointment was positive. However, some were concerned that it represented a break with tradition because she does not speak French. Simon addressed the point, saying that she is bilingual in speaking Inuktitut and English. She pledged that her office would conduct all business in both official languages and that she would learn French. Simon was officially installed as Governor General on 26 July 2021.
Simon married Whit Fraser in 1994. She was previously married twice before and has adult children and multiple grandchildren.
Simon’s hobbies include playing the accordion and canoeing. She regularly visits family in Kuujjuaq and returns to the land. According to a 1996 profile in Maclean’s, her early years living in two cultures provided the grounding that has helped her throughout her life and career.
Honours and Awards
- National Order of Quebec, 1992.
- Gold Order of Greenland, 1992.
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire), 1996.
- Gold Order of the Canadian Geographical Society, 1998.
- Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, 1999.
- Symons Medal, Confederation Centre of the Arts, 2009.
- Inductee in International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame, 2010.
- Governor General's Northern Medal (now the Polar Medal), 2011.
- Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, 2021.
- Patron of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, 2022.