Mary Simon

Mary Jeannie May Simon (Ningiukudluk); diplomat, civil servant, (born 21 August 1947, in Kangirsualujjuaq, Nunavik, Quebec). In addition to her roles in the civil service, Mary Simon is an advocate for international cooperation in the Arctic and Indigenous education and rights. She is also Canada’s 30th Governor General and first Indigenous person to serve in that role.

Mary Jeannie May Simon (Ningiukudluk); diplomat, civil servant, (born 21 August 1947, in Kangirsualujjuaq, Nunavik, Quebec). In addition to her roles in the civil service, Mary Simon is an advocate for international cooperation in the Arctic and Indigenous education and rights. She is also Canada’s 30th Governor General and first Indigenous person to serve in that role.


Early Years

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 enjoying 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.

Public Service

Throughout her career Mary Simon has seamlessly moved between two cultures, working for Inuit organizations or for the federal government with the trust and support of both sides. For example, the time of her appointment as governor general in 2021, she was working for Makivik Corporation as the lead negotiator on self-determination for Nunavik and acting as a special representative on the Arctic to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

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.

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. Simon was elected Makivik’s first vice president, serving from 1978 to 1980, and then president, from 1983 to 1985.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) was founded in 1971 to advocate for Inuit interests by lobbying the federal and provincial governments while supporting individuals and promoting Inuit culture. The ITK oversaw the Inuit Committee on National Issues that was established in 1979 to represent Inuit issues in federal-provincial constitutional negotiations. As a member of the Inuit Committee on National Issues, Simon 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. Without that clarity, she said, “the specific commitment in the Constitution to deal with our rights…is unlikely to be met.” Her work, and that of the committee, resulted in reworking of what is now section 35 of the constitution, resulting in Inuit land claims becoming equivalent to treaty rights and thus protected by the constitution. In 1983 the newly amended Section 35 expanded Indigenous rights to include equality of First Nations women as well.

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.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which has since been renamed the Inuit Circumpolar Council, currently represents about 180,000 Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and Canada. It advances Inuit unity and promotes their interests in safeguarding the Arctic environment while enhancing social and economic development. Simon served as president from 1986 to 1992. She was then Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2003. At the same time, from 1999 to 2001, Simon served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark. Simon was the first Inuk in Canada to hold the rank of ambassador. Simon said her greatest accomplishment during this time was the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996, an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation and sustainable development among the eight countries with Arctic territory.

Founded by former US president Jimmy Carter, the Carter Centre works around the world to prevent and resolve conflicts to create sustainable peace. Simon has been affiliated with the Carter Centre since 2001, serving as a Counsellor for its International Council for Conflict Resolution.

Simon was among nine community leaders appointed by the federal government to the Nunavut Implementation Commission on 10 December 1993, which negotiated the creation of the self-governing territory of Nunavut in 1999.

Simon was elected Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president 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.”

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 that identified and removed gaps in education and reduced drop-out rates while having Inuit children taught in their language. 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.

Governor General

On July 6, 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that, on his advice, Queen Elizabeth II had appointed Simon to be Canada’s 30th Governor General. Simon is Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General. 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 discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who had died at residential schools 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 but 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 July 26, 2021.

Family

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 Magazine, her early years living in two cultures provided the grounding that has helped her throughout her life and career, "I can live down here in a house like this…"or I can go up North and live in a tent, and I'm very comfortable either way."

Awards

Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada,

Governor General's Northern Medal,

National Order of Québec,

Gold Order of Greenland,

National Aboriginal Achievement Award,

Gold Order of the Canadian Geographical Society and the Symons Medal,

Inductee in International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame,

Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America,

Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society,