Politics

4 things you should know about Canada's first Indigenous governor general

Mary Simon becomes Canada's first Indigenous governor general after a career spent advocating for Inuit people and serving as an ambassador abroad.

Simon was the first Inuk to hold an ambassadorial position

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon arrive for an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, has been named Canada's next governor general — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

When Mary Simon is officially installed as Canada's governor general, she will become the first Indigenous person to serve in the role.

A number of Indigenous people have taken on the viceregal role of lieutenant governor at the provincial level, including current Saskatchewan Lt.-Gov. Russell Mirasty.

During a press conference today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Simon's appointment a "historic step."

Simon said she was "honoured, humbled and ready to be Canada's first Indigenous governor general."

Here are some key facts about Canada's next governor general:

Lifelong advocate for Inuit

Simon is an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, a small village on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec. She has spent years advocating for Inuit rights and culture.

Simon told today's press conference she lived "a very traditional lifestyle" during her adolescence.

"Many months out of the year we camped and lived on the land, hunted, fished and gathered food and maintained an active connection with our Inuit heritage and language," she said.

Simon has held a number of executive positions with various Inuit advocacy groups, starting with the Northern Quebec Inuit Association and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization, in the 1970s.

WATCH | Governor general-designate Mary Simon describes her early life:

Governor general-designate Mary Simon describes her early life

3 months ago
2:41
Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as the ambassador to Denmark. Simon also was a host with CBC North. 2:41

In 1982, Simon was elected president of Makivik Corp., created to administer the funds the Inuit received from development of their lands. The organization now manages tens of millions of dollars in investments, including an ownership stake in Canadian North, a major air carrier in the Arctic.

She would later join the executive council of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, now called the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a non-governmental organization representing approximately 180,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia.

At the ICC, she championed two priorities for Indigenous Peoples of the north: protecting their way of life from environmental damage and pushing for responsible economic development on their traditional territory.

Beginning in 2006, Simon served two terms as president of the ITK. In that role, she delivered a response on behalf of Inuit to the formal apology on residential schools presented in the House of Commons in 2008.

In 2012, Simon founded the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation, which provides children in Nunavut with physical and mental health supports.

Fluent in Inuktitut, English

Traditionally, the role of Queen's representative in Canada has been a bilingual position, and governors general have been expected to be fluent in both of Canada's official languages.

Simon is fluent in both English and Inuktitut. She said she has been taking French lessons and plans to continue her studies after she begins her time at Rideau Hall.

"I am deeply committed to continuing my French language studies and plan to conduct the business of the governor general in both of Canada's official languages," she said.

Her lack of fluency in French has drawn some criticism. Quebec Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan said he was "astounded" by the appointment.

"How can a prime minister consider that it is appropriate to appoint a governor general who will not be able to speak to more than eight million French speaking citizens of Canada?" he said in a news release.

WATCH | Trudeau announces Mary Simon as the next governor general of Canada:

Trudeau announces Mary Simon as the next governor general of Canada

3 months ago
1:24
Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as both the ambassador to Denmark and for circumpolar affairs. 1:24

Despite growing up in northern Quebec, Simon said she never had an opportunity to learn French at an early age because it was not taught at the federal day school she attended.

Day schools operated separately from residential schools but were run by many of the same groups that ran residential schools. They operated from the 1860s to the 1990s.

Veteran negotiator

Simon has been involved in a number of landmark negotiations during her career.

In 1975, Simon helped to negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement between the Cree and Inuit in Quebec's north, the provincial government and Hydro-Québec.

Widely seen as the country's "first modern treaty," the agreement acknowledged Cree and Inuit rights in the James Bay region for the first time — such as exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights and self-governance in some areas — and offered financial compensation in exchange for the construction of massive new hydroelectric dams to fuel the growing province's demand for new energy sources.

WATCH | Mary Simon reacts to her appointment as Canada's first Indigenous governor general:

Governor general-designate Mary Simon says she is honoured and humbled to be named to the viceregal post.

3 months ago
1:01
Trudeau picks Mary Simon as the 30th governor general of Canada. She was the first Inuk to represent Canada as both the ambassador to Denmark and for circumpolar affairs. 1:01

Simon was an Inuit representative during the negotiations that led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 — which included an acknowledgement of Indigenous treaty rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

She also was part of former prime minister Brian Mulroney's attempts to amend the Constitution as part of the Charlottetown Accord process in the early 1990s.

During the 1990s, Simon served as a commissioner on the Nunavut Implementation Commission which would lead to the establishment of the territory of Nunavut.

First Inuk ambassador

Simon was the first Inuk person to hold an ambassadorial position on behalf of the government of Canada.

In 1994, former prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Simon as Canada's first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, a position that was axed in 2006.

During her time in that role, she helped negotiate the creation of an eight-country group known today as the Arctic Council.

Simon served previously as Canada's ambassador to Denmark, leading Canada's diplomatic mission in that country from 1999 until 2001.

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