“I was born Mary Jeannie May in the Quebec Arctic, known as Nunavik. My Inuit name is Ningiukudluk. The new Governor General of Canada, Mary Simon, 73, insisted on including the same sentence in her inauguration speech and during her inauguration on July 26.
By highlighting where she is from, Simon demonstrates the importance of being the first Indigenous person to take on the job. Although the post has little influence – she represents Queen Elizabeth II of England and commands the armed forces – her appointment comes at a time of controversy, with the revelation of mass graves found in boarding schools, where natives were studying.
Of Inuit origin, an indigenous Eskimo nation that represented 0.2% of the Canadian population in 2016, Mary Jeannie studied at the Federal School of Fort Chimo, an institution different from those involved in the recent controversy, but which did subject to prosecution for ill-treatment.
Daughter of an Inuit and a white Canadian from Manitoba, in the center of the country, she lived between the two worlds from an early age.
“Part of my cultural tradition as an Inuit is the strong bonds created between generations,” he said in the inauguration speech. “My grandmother and my mother taught me to always be proud of who I am and to keep an open mind to other points of view.”
From her father, who works at a Hudson’s Bay retailer, she says she learned about the world of non-natives. “Combining these experiences has allowed me to be a bridge between people, no matter where they live, what they hope or what they have to overcome. “
In her early twenties, she went to work as a radio host at CBC in Montreal, the largest city in the province of Quebec. In this job, she translated and explained news from around the world to Inuit audiences in the Arctic.
However, it was after her stint with the Canadian broadcaster that she immersed herself in the work that would project her nationally: the defense of indigenous rights. Holding several management positions at the Inuit Association of Northern Quebec and the Inuit organization Tapiriit Kanatami (the Inuit are united in Canada, in free translation), she participated in the negotiation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. in 1975, considered the first modern country treated.
The pact between the Cree and Inuit indigenous peoples, the provincial government and the energy supplier Hydro-Québec was an important step for the country. According to him, the rights of the indigenous peoples of James Bay were recognized for the first time, which included exclusive hunting and fishing rights and independent government in some areas. The text also provided for a financial reward in exchange for the construction of dams for hydropower plants.
In 1982, Simon was elected president of the Makivik company, created to manage the resources received by the Inuit from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. That same year, along with other indigenous leaders, the activist was directly involved in negotiations to include the rights of indigenous peoples (which cover the country’s various indigenous ethnic groups) in the Canadian constitution.
Two years later, she engaged in the discussion of gender equality in all of the country’s laws, leading a clash with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – father of Justin Trudeau, who 37 years later would appoint her Governor General, in which he called it a “historic milestone” for Canada.
It was not, however, the first time that Simon was a pioneer in taking office. In the 1980s and 1990s, she continued to work in various organizations related to the defense of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the country, until being appointed Ambassador of Circumpolar Relations, in 1994, becoming the first Inuit to hold such a position. .
It was at this time that she married, for the third time, Whit Fraser, with whom she had three children: Richard, Louis and Carole. The surname Simon that she has kept since her first marriage in the 1960s.
Simon remained Ambassador until 2003. During this period, she worked with countries in this region to strengthen cooperation and negotiated the creation of the Arctic Council.
In the 2000s and 2010s, she returned to devote herself to Indigenous organizations, serving two terms as President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. He also founded the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation and chaired the National Committee for Inuit Education.
Its robust trajectory did not spare it criticism, however.
One of the main ones is the fact that I do not speak French, one of the two official languages of the country. Simon is bilingual, but in English and Inuit. In an article for The Conversation, Nicole Rosen, professor and researcher on linguistic interactions at the University of Manitoba, explains that the country’s current policy places a hierarchy, with the two official languages above the others. “Being bilingual only ‘counts’ if you are French-English,” he wrote.
Rosen recalls that removing Indigenous children from their families to learn the official language, in schools that are now the target of controversy and lawsuits, has resulted in a “brutal end to family language transmission of almost all over 70 native languages spoken. in this country”.
“While French remains a minority language in Canada, many Indigenous languages are on the way out,” writes the researcher. Data from the 2016 census support this claim, as only 0.6% of the population has one of the Indigenous languages as their mother tongue, and for 0.3% this language is the main language spoken at home.