There was brassy military music and the thud of a 21-gun salute. But there were also the drumbeats and songs of the polar north as Mary May Simon was sworn in on July 26 as Canada’s 30th governor-general, the first Indigenous Canadian to hold the office. It is the last link with the British monarchy.
The title was conferred by Queen Elizabeth II, who spoke during the ceremony by video from Britain, calling the new governor-general the “queen of Canada,” though Simon was chosen for the position by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The role of governor-general may be seen as a traditional, ceremonial one for most Canadians, but for those who call themselves the “circumpolar people” and navigate brutally hard, mostly unseen lives from Arctic Alaska across Canada to Greenland, it was a day that rewrote history. The job requires carrying out constitutional duties, serving as commander in chief, representing Canada at home and abroad and “bringing Canadians together,” the official description says.
Constitutionally, Canada has been a work in progress for centuries. It was a British colony until 1867, when it became a self-governing, federated dominion in the British empire, adding provinces and territories over the years until 1982. That is when Parliament in London passed the Canada Act, conferring all constitutional power to Canadians. The territory of Nunavut, the home of the Inuit people, was created in 1999 from a large part of what was earlier the Northwest Territories.
Simon, 73, was born in Nunavik, an Indigenous area in northern Quebec. Her father, Bob May, was from Manitoba, of English descent, and her mother, Nancy, was an Inuk from an Indigenous family. Simon’s first languages were English and Inuktitut. She never learned to speak fluent French, which has upset many French-speaking Canadians.
Local media are reporting that hundreds of letters have been pouring into the government in Ottawa to complain that her appointment violates the dual English-French national language policy.
In recent speeches, Simon has fluctuated between the retort that she already speaks two languages — Inuktitut and English — and her promise to study French. At her swearing-in, most of her acceptance address was about reconciliation.
As a child whose father was a manager of a local branch of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Simon remained at home but was forced to attend a day school devoted to replacing Indigenous language and culture. The goal was total assimilation into Canada’s English-language society, part of a policy that at its worst produced oppressive full-time residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their families. It was an era when similar harsh policies were instituted in the United States and Australia, and children suffered neglect and abuse; many died.
In recent months, Canadians have found more than 1,300 unmarked graves of children around the sites of four former residential schools, according to a recent report in The Guardian. More than 130 such schools were established across Canada, a system that Simon has been criticizing for years after hearing in her childhood the frightening stories of survivors. In 2017, Trudeau apologized publicly for the abuses, for which he at least partly blamed Catholic education officials for laxity in running many of the schools. Now evidence is emerging to document the scale of the deaths.
Simon became a leader in promoting Inuit culture, a role she has played from the start of her appointments in Canadian civil and diplomatic services. On the board of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, she became Canada’s first Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2004, as well as a lead negotiator for the creation of the multilateral Arctic Council.
From 1999 to 2002, she was Canada’s ambassador to Denmark, and she took the opportunity to learn more about Greenland, a Danish territory with a large Inuit population. International diplomacy in Copenhagen, with its endless receptions and dinners, bored and frustrated Simon and her husband, Whit Fraser, an author and correspondent in the Arctic for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the CBC. They returned to Canada, cutting short the diplomatic appointment. That story is told in Fraser’s 2013 book, “True North Rising,” which is also an account of his many wild, risky adventures as a young man and later a reporter in the most inhospitable edge of North America.
In her acceptance speech after formally taking office in a solemn ceremony on July 26, still tinged with overtones of British pomp, Simon said: “Where we gather today is of enormous significance to me. Thirty-nine years ago, this was [where] I worked with other Indigenous leaders . . . to have our rights affirmed in the Constitution of Canada. That moment made this one possible.”
In a bow to the continuing relationship with Britain, she added: “I also want to offer my heartfelt gratitude to Her Majesty The Queen for placing her trust and confidence in me. I know she has an abiding love for this magnificent country.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.