As she was sworn in officially today as Canada’s 30th Governor General — the first Indigenous person ever to hold the position — Mary Simon praised Canadians’ “selflessness” and vowed to “bring people together.”
Simon — an Inuk from Kuujjuaq in northeastern Quebec — took her oaths this morning in a ceremony at the Senate chamber in Ottawa.
“I have heard from Canadians who describe a renewed sense of possibility for our country and hope that I can bring people together,” she said in her address.
“Every day, inside small community halls, school gyms, Royal Canadian Legions, places of worship, and in thousands of community service organizations, there are ordinary Canadians doing extraordinary things. As governor general I will never lose sight of this — that our selflessness is one of our great strengths as a nation. I pledge to be there for all Canadians.”
She promised to use her new position at Rideau Hall to work against climate change, advocate for mental health and work toward reconciliation.
Her appointment comes during a time of reckoning in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples — after reported discoveries of unmarked graves containing the remains of hundreds of children near former residential schools.
“My view is that reconciliation is a way of life and requires work every day,” Simon said. “Reconciliation is getting to know one another.”
In his address this morning, Trudeau said Canada needs someone like Simon now.
“You remind us that true leadership is not measured in the honours or distinction stacked up behind someone’s name – although today, you take on yet another title among many,” he said. “Rather, true leadership is measured in what you do for those around you. It is measured in an ability to reach out and build a brighter future for all, not just a lucky few.
“In this moment of unprecedented change – of rebuilding from the pandemic, of fighting the climate crisis, of walking forward on the path of reconciliation – we need your vision of a stronger Canada for everyone.”
While the installation ceremony was smaller than in previous years, due to COVID-19 public health measures, it still offered some of the familiar pomp associated with the vice-regal position, including a 21-gun salute.
It was also punctuated by nods to Simon’s heritage, including the lighting of a Qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp used to light and warm the home.
“I was born Mary Jeannie May in Arctic Quebec, now known as Nunavik. My Inuk name is Ningiukudluk. And prime minister, it means ‘bossy little old lady,'” she said to laughter.
Simon said her parents taught her to live in two worlds; she lived a traditional lifestyle growing up but also learned from her father, a white man originally from Manitoba, about the “non-Inuit southern world.”
“It took time before I gained the self-confidence to assert myself and my beliefs in the non-Indigenous world. But when I came to understand that my voice had power and that others were looking to me to be their voice, I was able to let go of my fear,” she said.
Indigenous leaders — particularly representatives of the Inuit community — have praised Simon’s appointment.
“I’m excited for Mary. I’m actually very excited for Canada. This is a step forward in reconciliation,” Natan Obed, the president of the national Inuit group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), said Monday morning.
“It’s also just a potential for Canadians to understand more about Canada and Canadians and what incredible diversity and strength we have in our Indigenous peoples, and also what great leadership and accomplishment we have in Inuit, First Nations and Métis in this country.”
But concerns have been raised about Simon’s ability to speak French.
While she is fully fluent in English and Inuktitut, Simon is not fluent in French. Typically, the governor general is expected to have a complete command of both official languages.
“My first language — Inuktitut — is the language that defines Inuit as a people and is the foundation of our very survival. My second language — English — became a gateway to the world beyond. And now, I am committed to adding Canada’s other official language, French,” she said today.
Despite Simon’s promise to continue taking French lessons while serving as governor general, hundreds of French speaking Canadians have written complaints to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, triggering an investigation by Commissioner Raymond Théberge.
Despite growing up in northern Quebec, Simon said she never had an opportunity to learn French at an early age because it was not taught at the federal day school she attended.
Day schools operated separately from residential schools but were run by many of the same groups that ran residential schools. They operated from the 1860s to the 1990s.
Obed said Canadians need to rethink the way they view bilingualism.
“Inuktitut is a founding language of this country. And yes, Mary Simon is not fluent in French today, she has pledged to learn it, but really, we as Canadians have to think more broadly and holistically about the linguistic diversity of this country,” he said.
“We have to celebrate Indigenous languages and understand that they are founding languages of this country. And that matters, as do French and English, absolutely. But Inuktitut belongs in Rideau Hall just as much as French and English.”
The government has maintained that Simon is an exemplary candidate despite her lack of fluency in French.
Simon brings an extensive resume with her to Rideau Hall, following a career that included various positions as an advocate and ambassador.
She helped negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, a landmark deal between the Cree and Inuit in Quebec’s north, the provincial government and Hydro-Québec.
Widely seen as the country’s “first modern treaty,” the agreement saw the province acknowledge Cree and Inuit rights in the James Bay region for the first time, such as exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights and self-governance in some areas. It also offered financial compensation in exchange for the construction of massive new hydroelectric dams to fuel the growing province’s demand for new energy sources.
Simon was also an Inuit representative during the negotiations that led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 — which included an acknowledgement of Indigenous treaty rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In 1986, Simon was tapped to lead the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a group created in 1977 to represent the Inuit in all the Arctic countries. At the ICC, she championed two priorities for Indigenous Peoples of the north: protecting their way of life from environmental damage and pushing for responsible economic development on their traditional territory.
In 1994, former prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Simon as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs.
During her time in that role, she helped negotiate the creation of an eight-country group known today as the Arctic Council. She would later be appointed as Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.
Beginning in 2006, Simon served two terms as president of the ITK. In that role, she delivered a response on behalf of Inuit to the formal apology for residential schools presented in the House of Commons in 2008.
Following the ceremony, Simon visited the National War Memorial to inspect a guard of honour and lay flowers in honour of Canada’s war dead — her first act as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Simon took her first step into the official role Thursday when she spoke with the Queen. In a short clip of the online conversation that was posted on The Royal Family’s Instagram account, the Queen said it was good to speak with Simon and told her she was “taking over a very important job.”
Simon and her husband Whit Fraser have already moved into Rideau Hall with their dog Neva.
Her installation comes more than five months after Julie Payette resigned from the post following a scathing external review that found she had presided over a “toxic” and “poisoned” workplace at Rideau Hall.
The third-party review gathered testimony from more than 90 people and was triggered by a CBC News story about alleged mistreatment of staff by Payette and her second-in-command, who also later resigned. Payette has said she takes workplace harassment seriously.