By Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Indigenous people, both young and old, take pride in seeing their own First Nations, Inuit and Metis people take on lead roles in Canada, to which they were not given the opportunity before. On July 26, 2021, after 154 years, Canada took an historic step in appointing Ms. Mary May Simon, an Inuk woman, into the role of Governor General. Ms. Simon holds the second-highest federal office in Canada after King Charles III. Recently as part of my committee work, I had the opportunity to meet the first Indigenous Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary May Simon. It was a special moment for me as an Inuk to see another Inuk in such a prestigious role.
The roles and responsibilities of a governor general are to be the Commander-in-Chief, represent Canada, perform constitutional duties, encourage excellence and bring Canadians together. The governor general is the King’s representative in Canada and exercises the powers and responsibilities of the Head of State. One of the key tasks is to ensure that Canada always has a prime minister and a government in place that has the confidence of Parliament.
The governor general plays an important role in bringing people together in a spirit of goodwill and common cause. As an Indigenous person, Ms. Simon plays an additional role to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, celebrating Indigenous achievements and milestones alongside those of non-Indigenous Canadians and drawing attention to the contributions of Indigenous peoples throughout Canada’s history. This was not a highlighted requirement in the past.
On May 8, 1986, thirty-seven years ago when I was a teenager, I had the honour of meeting the then first female governor general of Canada, Madame Sauvé. I was a residential school student at the time participating at the Canadian Student Forum on the Youth Economy. We were invited to a reception at Rideau Hall. I recall it being a very formal event.
While we were all having tea together, Madame Sauvé, asked us who was the student representative for the North. I was there on behalf of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and it was prior to Nunavut being formed. Nervously, I put my hand up. She then joked that it was my fault that it snowed in Ottawa that day and that it was unusual for it to happen in the month of May. I recall feeling disappointed because I have always loved snow and could have shared so many interesting things about snow and my culture with her, but she moved on to another topic. It is a known fact that in the Inuit language there are dozens of words for snow and ice.
At the reception, I also could not help but remember that I was at Rideau Hall the previous year as an exchange student touring the building. I was in the same room where we were not allowed to touch the furniture, but now, I was allowed to sit on it at the reception. I remember thinking I was the same person that came here last year.
Never did I think I would go back one day to be hosted by an Inuk Governor General and feel the pride that I do now. Ms. Simon was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik (Quebec), to Nancy May (Angnatuk-Askew), her Inuk mother, and Bob Mardon May, her father, who moved to the Arctic to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Ms. Simon is known nationally and internationally for her work on Arctic and Indigenous issues and for advocating for Inuit rights, youth, education and culture. In 2012, she founded the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation, which provides children in Nunavut with physical and mental health supports. She also holds many distinctions, including being a recipient of the Governor General’s Northern Medal before becoming Canada’s Governor General.
Ms. Simon was the first Inuk person to hold an ambassadorial position on behalf of the government of Canada. In 1994, she was appointed as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs where she helped negotiate the creation of the Arctic Council, an eight-country group. Ms. Simon also served as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2001.
Ms. Simon is serving in a role that is still considered to be part of a colonial system of governance and it is not easy. However, the system will never change unless strong Indigenous leaders like Ms. Simon step into roles such as this and create positive change for a more diverse and inclusive Canada. At our lunch meeting where we were encouraged to wear our traditional dress, I was so impressed when Ms. Simon greeted everyone around the table with a hug. I sat proudly in Rideau Hall while I listened to her speak our Indigenous language at the table. We enjoyed a lovely meal together and she intently asked all of us about the work that we were doing and offered her knowledge and wisdom. I felt excited and not nervous to share more about our initiative. It was a surreal moment to be in such an historic building and feel so welcomed.
I think back to when I was a young girl and how things have been slowly but positively changing over time for Indigenous people in Canada. There is no one better to represent Canada than our own people who have been here since time immemorial. We need to thank and embrace our Indigenous leaders, such as Ms. Simon, and uplift them for creating long-lasting change for the betterment of Canada as a whole.