Mary May Simon had no idea growing up as a little girl in a remote Inuit village in northern Quebec that she would someday be blazing a trail in another part of the country, representing an entire nation.
But here she is, living some 1,500 kilometres away from her birthplace, on the shores of the Northumberland Strait in Caribou River, about to become Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
On July 26, Mary Simon will make history in that prestigious role when she is formally installed as the 30th Governor General of Canada.
This is not the first time the soft-spoken Simon has blazed a trail in her life.
In her earlier life, she was elected as vice-president of the Makivik Corporation—the legal representative of Quebec’s Inuit—and later became its president, a position she held until 1985. Simon was one of the senior Inuit negotiators during the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution that took place during the decade from 1982 to 1992, as well as during the 1992 Charlottetown Accord discussions. She also served as co-director (policy) and secretary to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Simon was Canada’s first ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2004 and was lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Indigenous people of the Arctic and Arctic governments, and she also served as the Canadian Ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2002.
Simon says she feels the country was ready for an Indigenous leader.
“There has never been an Indigenous governor general here and I think that’s an important thing to have happen in Canada; I think we were ready for such an appointment as a country. That the prime minister selected me is an indication that the country is ready for such an appointment.”
Her diverse background in terms of diplomatic service and foreign affairs, as well as being involved with and working with different national and international organizations, have all contributed to her selection as governor general, she says.
“I think given all of the qualifications of all of the candidates, this was something that was really important in the process. In listening to some of the interviews after the announcement was made, some of the Indigenous people have said it’s not because I am indigenous that I was selected; I happen to be indigenous but I was qualified for the job. And to me, that is an important comment that was made.”
Simon’s diversity has armed her with an understanding of the diversity of the country, “not just related to Indigenous people but with all other cultures that have come to Canada to make their permanent home Canada. And the background that I have has contributed to the discussion where they felt that I have a good understanding of all of it.
“I am the first Indigenous governor general and I think that’s an important point. I think Canada has turned a page in our history and perhaps we will develop a more inclusive society and my role is to definitely contribute to that discussion and dialogue that is going to happen across the country.”
A warm, attentive individual, Simon is most looking forward to connecting with her fellow Canadians on a personal level as the country’s newest governor general.
“Being able to talk to people not just in the leadership area but also people that are living in the large cities, small communities across Canada and just being able to have a good dialogue about the issues that are confronting them and getting to understand even more where we need to go, so I’m actually looking forward to that part of my role.”
The governor general-designate describes herself as a “people person.” Her desire for listening from the heart to people and her ability to have discussions to understand another person’s perspective and to take this into account in any of the work she has done have contributed to her success as a diplomat.
Yet she feels her approach to adversity has been her greatest achievement.
“I come from an upbringing that was very remote from the rest of Canada, a very small village in an Inuit community. And coming to where I am today I have had to face a lot of different situations and I’ve grown from those situations. Adversity to me helps one grow. You have to take that adversity and work with it and not let it defeat you. I’ve always been a person that takes that and works in a way where I will both develop as an individual and be more proactive and understand better what’s going on. And also to allow people to express their own views and be able to listen to those views. And to me that has probably been my biggest attribute in my work.”
The days since it was announced that Simon would be the next governor general have been frantic and busy, but Simon was happy to be able to return to her home in Caribou River with her husband, Pictou County native Whit Fraser.
Fraser was born in Merigomish, grew up in Stellarton and, as a journalist and broadcaster, is well-known in his career. The two met when he was working in the North and years later, married.
They have lived across the country but now have settled in Caribou River.
“We’ve always come here during the summer and rented cottages along the shores of Pictou County but this is the first purchase we’ve made together,” Simon explains of their Pictou County home.
“We both love it in Nova Scotia. We love to come here for the summer. We actually spent the whole winter here last year and we actually enjoyed it very much, and we winterized our cottage because of that. But for me, what has always attracted me to Nova Scotia is the friendly people that I encounter. Up North we are infinitely friendly people, understanding, and here I get a sense that that also happens in Nova Scotia—especially in places like Pictou County. And I’ve always found people to be very friendly here, not afraid to speak to you even if they don’t know who you are, and are always approachable. So this has always been an important part of my relationship with this area and with the people that live in this area, and we have connected with a lot of people here and found great friends.”