Madalyn Howitt, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News
When Gov. Gen. Mary Simon was a student growing up in Nunavik in the 1950s, Indigenous Peoples’ history was not something she learned about in school.
“I can remember learning the history of the country up in the Arctic. There was nothing about Indigenous people,” she said.
“I didn’t even know there were all these Indigenous people across the country until I was a grown woman.”
Decades later, as the first Indigenous person to become Governor General of Canada, Simon finds herself uniquely positioned to ensure future generations of Canadians learn the history and stories of people like her.
“I’m not political, but I can do a lot” as Governor General, she said.
Born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Simon has worked as a teacher and broadcaster, represented Canada as a diplomat and served as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
Now about halfway through her five-year term, Simon said it’s all gone by quickly.
“Just thinking back on some of the things that have happened, it has been an inspiring period for me and perhaps other Canadians too,” she said, speaking with Nunatsiaq News earlier this month at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence in Ottawa.
It’s been a term marked by some historic firsts, like Pope Francis’s long-awaited visit to Canada in July 2022 to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
“That was a milestone. We had worked 20 years to get the Pope to come here to apologize, and then it was during my term as Governor General, which was really important for me,” Simon said.
Soon after, the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 marked the start of a new working relationship for Simon.
She seized the opportunity of King Charles’ coronation in May to organize a historic meeting of Canada’s Indigenous leaders with the British monarch, citing the importance of Crown-Indigenous relations on the path to reconciliation.
It’s that ongoing act of reconciliation that Simon sees as one of her biggest responsibilities as Governor General.
“It has been clear, since I’ve been appointed, that Canadians are very supportive and want Indigenous Peoples and other Canadians to come together more and work together as partners,” Simon said.
These can be difficult conversations to have, though, when so many Indigenous communities are grappling with the legacy of residential schools and facing difficult circumstances in life, she said.
“I think it’s really important to discuss those things, so that the future of the country is more inclusive, not just in terms of how we talk about it but in terms of what we practice.
“These days, it’s really important for face-to-face discussions, to continue in our daily lives, and to get to know people and find out who they are. I always find that when I tell a story about who I am, it seems that people get more comfortable talking to me about who they are.”
Simon experienced that first-hand this year, when she spoke out publicly in February about the online abuse she and her staff were receiving on social media.
“I could have just walked away and said I’m going to ignore it,” she said.
“But then I thought about it a lot, and I just felt that it was my responsibility as a Governor General of Canada to speak out about it, using myself as an example of how people can be so affected by the online hate and the online misogynistic attitudes that you see.”
Since then, she’s continued to speak out about her personal experience and sees the issue as one she’ll continue to educate people about even after her term as Governor General concludes, especially as it affects so many young people.
Simon said she and her team have been meeting with universities about the role they should be playing in terms of how students are affected by social media, citing examples of youth suicides due to online abuse.
She said parents and families need to teach children that it’s alright to talk about bullying and abuse they encounter online.
“Don’t punish them when they bring something up and just say, ‘Don’t talk to them, delete them.’ That isn’t going to fix it,” she said.
“I think what’s going to give the children a safe space is for the parents to be open with their children about what’s happening, and to teach them what’s out there.”
Invoking her personal motto, Ajuinatta, which means “to persevere” in Inuktitut, Simon wants to continue to empower youth, especially young Indigenous people. She sees herself as a role model, especially for young people hoping to be future leaders.
“Whenever I have a meeting here at Rideau Hall, I try to include young people in it, like on the mental health work that we’re doing here,” Simon said.
“Young people are very much a part of it. So let’s make the change.”