Mary Simon was sworn in as Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general today at the Senate building in Ottawa. Simon, an Inuk from Kuujjuaq in northeastern Quebec, was appointed to the position earlier this month by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For the first time, the inauguration event will be held in both English and Inuktitut.
Following the event, Simon will review a guard of honor and lay flowers in memory of Canada’s war dead at the National War Memorial, her first act as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Simon made her first formal step into the job on Thursday, when she met with the Queen.
The Queen said it was nice to talk with Simon and informed her she was “taking over a very important role” in a brief clip of the online discussion shared on The Royal Family’s Instagram feed. Indigenous communities, notably Inuit representatives, have hailed the appointment.
However, questions have been raised regarding Simon’s capacity to communicate in French. Simon is not proficient in French, despite the fact that she is completely fluent in English and Inuktitut. Typically, the governor general is required to be fluent in both official languages.
Hundreds of French-speaking Canadians have submitted concerns to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, despite Simon’s commitment to continue taking French lessons while serving as governor general. The accusations prompted Commissioner Raymond Théberge to start a probe into the governor-general nomination process.
Simon argues that, although growing up in northern Quebec, she never had the opportunity to learn French at an early age since it was not taught at the federal day school she attended. Day schools functioned independently of residential schools, but were managed by many of the same organisations that administered residential schools. They were in business from the 1860s through the 1990s.
Despite her lack of proficiency in French, the administration has maintained that Simon is an excellent choice. Simon comes to Rideau Hall with a long list of accomplishments, including roles as an advocate and ambassador.
In 1975, she assisted in the negotiation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, a major agreement between the Cree and Inuit of Quebec’s north, the provincial government, and Hydro-Québec.
The pact, often regarded as the country’s “first modern treaty,” saw the province recognise Cree and Inuit rights in the James Bay region for the first time, including exclusive hunting, fishing, and trapping rights, as well as self-governance in some regions. It also provided financial incentives in exchange for the construction of huge new hydroelectric dams to meet the rising need for new energy sources in the region.
Simon was also an Inuit delegate during the talks that led to the Constitution’s patriation in 1982, which included a recognition of Indigenous treaty rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Simon was appointed to chair the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in 1986, an organisation formed in 1977 to represent Inuit in all Arctic nations. At the ICC, she advocated for two goals for Indigenous Peoples of the North: environmental protection and responsible economic development on their native land.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien named Simon Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar issues in 1994. During her tenure in that position, she was instrumental in negotiating the formation of an eight-country organisation known today as the Arctic Council. She would go on to become Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.
Simon was president of the ITK for two terms beginning in 2006. In that capacity, she made a statement on behalf of Inuit to the House of Commons‘ formal apology for residential schools in 2008.