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When Canada's next governor general was a guest on CBC's Front Page Challenge

Thousands of caribou had died in a swollen Northern Quebec river in October 1984. As head of an organization representing the interests of the province's Inuit, Mary Simon wanted to know why.

Mary Simon discussed deaths of thousands of caribou in northern Quebec in 1984

Mary Simon, seen at her Ottawa office on July 19, 2006, was the top political voice for Canada's Inuit as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Simon was named as Canada's next governor general in July 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

When the panel on the CBC headline-hunting game show Front Page Challenge was trying to guess the story on a November 1984 episode, it seems unlikely anyone among them would imagine they were talking to a future governor general.    

One of the show's guests that night was Mary Simon, who at the time was the president of Makivik Corp., a corporation that had been founded under the terms of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Makivik's role was to represent the interests of the Inuit of Northern Quebec.

Simon was announced as Canada's next governor general on Tuesday.

According to CBC News, Simon was elected president of Makivik in 1982. The organization was "created to administer the funds the Inuit received from the development on their lands."

10,000 dead caribou

Northern Quebec Inuit call for an inquiry into caribou deaths

Digital Archives

37 years ago
1:55
At a press conference, Makivik CEO Mary Simon and Inuit spokesman Mark Gordon tell reporters why there needs to be an inquiry into the deaths of thousands of migrating caribou in a Northern Quebec river. 1:55

In late September 1984, thousands of caribou on a migration route in northern Quebec died while trying to get across the swollen Caniapiscau River.

CBC reporter Whit Fraser, who had been following the story since it began earlier that month, filed a story for CBC's evening news service on Oct. 10, when Simon appeared at a press conference in Montreal to call for a public inquiry into the caribou deaths.

"[We can] hopefully through this public inquiry establish what type of measures need to be taken for this particular disaster ... and for future developments that take place in the North," Simon said.

Workers gathered in the shallows of the river were seen doing what Fraser described as the "gruesome" job of gathering caribou carcasses and attaching them to helicopters for dispersal elsewhere.

"Meanwhile, the Inuit report that they have gathered up more than 7,000 of the 10,000 dead caribou," Fraser said.

'Do you think it was avoidable?'

 

Why a caribou migration went wrong

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37 years ago
9:09
Makivik leader Mary Simon and journalist Whit Fraser describe the demise of thousands of caribou in Northern Quebec on CBC's Front Page Challenge in 1984. 9:09

Simon and Fraser appeared together on Front Page Challenge three weeks later. (According to CBC News, they are now married.) During the interview portion of the show, members of the panel asked the pair to recap the events that led to the deaths of the caribou.

"I don't understand how it happened," said guest panellist Elizabeth Gray, who was also host of CBC Radio's As It Happens at the time. "Mary Simon, do you think it was avoidable? Or was it just rainfall?"

"The Inuit of Northern Quebec feel that part of the reason was the rainfall that took place, but we also feel ... that Hydro-Quebec has something to do with this disaster," replied Simon.

She said the level of water in the river had been altered "dramatically" in the previous "couple of years" and that the recent disaster couldn't be attributed solely to a heavy rainfall.

Simon, right looks towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on July 6, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

'It's not just the caribou that are at stake' 

"Isn't there going to be some kind of an official investigation to find out what happened?" asked panellist Pierre Berton.

"We've requested ... to both the federal and provincial governments that a public impartial inquiry be held to assess the situation,"  said Simon. "One of the things that this catastrophe has done is brought to light a lot of the things that we have been trying to address as Inuit in Northern Quebec."

She said her organization had been seeking remediation for the effects of the James Bay Project, which was "a treaty with constitutional protection," on the environment and the community in the region.

"It's not just the caribou that are at stake here," she said. "There's a question of environmental and social assessment. We don't feel it's being properly followed in the development of these hydroelectric projects."

According to the Globe and Mail, the caribou deaths were the subject of a subsequent inquiry and an episode of CBC-TV's The Nature of Things.

"An inquiry blamed the release of 1,400 cubic metres of water per second from the giant Caniapiscau Reservoir, part of the James Bay power project," said a report on Dec. 13, 1986. 

Mystery guest Mary Simon on Front Page Challenge

Digital Archives

37 years ago
1:42
Mary Simon, as head of the Makivik corporation representing the interests of the Inuit of Northern Quebec, is a guest with CBC reporter Whit Fraser on the CBC game show in 1984. 1:42

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