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‘She knows where she comes from’: Mary Simon seen as humble, professional leader

Canada’s new governor-general has been a leader in the North for the past four decades
Mary Simon speaks during 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 as Canada’s next Governor General — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Growing up in northern Quebec, Mary Simon was taught by her grandmother to respect elders and to always be kind.

Raised in a family of eight children — four brothers and four sisters — Simon experienced harsh living conditions, her brother, Johnny May, told The Canadian Press.

“It was a completely different life,” May said. “We had to do chores, hauling water in buckets, hauling ice blocks in the winter. No Ski-Doos back then. If there was any distance involved, it was with a dog team.”

Simon was born at a Hudson’s Bay Co. post in the Nunavik village of Kangiqsualujjuaq in 1947 before her father sent her and her siblings to school in Kuujjuaq, then called Fort Chimo.

May, known as the first Inuk pilot in Eastern Canada, described his younger sister as meticulous.

“She played with dolls when she was young and she had little homes made for the dolls. She was always helping her mum with chores. All I can say is that she was a good girl growing up.”

Simon, 74, has been a leader in the North for the last four decades. She served as president of Makivik Corp., the Nunavik land-claim body, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization. She was Canada’s first ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and also served as the country’s ambassador to Denmark.

She also worked a producer and announcer for CBC North.

Simon is well known for her role in negotiating the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement between the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec, the provincial government and Hydro-Quebec in 1975. The deal affirmed Inuit and Cree hunting and trapping rights in the area and established $225 million in compensation over 20 years in exchange for construction of hydroelectric dams.

During her time as Circumpolar Affairs ambassador, Simon led negotiations to create what is now known as the eight-country Arctic Council.

In 2016, she served as special adviser on the Arctic to Carolyn Bennett, who was then Indigenous and northern affairs minister, and proposed Indigenous-protected areas in the North.

Simon is married to Whit Fraser, a former CBC broadcaster and head of the Canadian Polar Commission, and has three children.

Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., said Nunavik is extremely proud of Simon’s appointment.

“In Nunavik, we all know our new Governor General as Mary,” Aatami said in a statement.

Okalik Eegeesiak, Simon’s friend and fellow Inuk leader, said she knows Simon as a humble and professional leader, but also as “a lot of fun.”

Eegeesiak remembers once, at an event in Ottawa, Simon picked up her accordion and started to play for the crowd.

“She”s just that type of person. She’ll just get into it and play an accordion at some event,” Eegeesiak said.

“That’s one of the fun memories I have. Well, everything is fun around her.”

Eegeesiak first met Simon at an Inuit Circumpolar Council meeting in the ’80s. The two would travel together internationally on many occasions, including to attend negotiations on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva.

“She’s very grounded. She knows where she comes from.”

Eegeesiak said she “got butterflies” when she heard the news of Simon’s appointment.

“It’s a significant step … it hits you to the core as an Inuk woman, as an Indigenous person,” she said.

“It’s a win for all of Canada.”

—Emma Tranter and Chris Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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