She’s out-debated politicians and outmanoeuvred diplomats. Now, Canada’s first Inuk governor general sets her sights on reconciliation
The Walrus – “INSIDE THE SENATE you can already see [the] presence of an Inuk Elder who is getting ready to light the qulliq,” Rosemary Barton, CBC chief political correspondent, told viewers on July 26, 2021.
The black and yellow news ticker at the bottom of the screen announced that Mary Simon would be installed as Canada’s first ever Indigenous governor general. “[The qulliq] is a traditional Inuit oil lamp that was used to sometimes warm the home, warm the igloo,” continued Barton, doing her best to describe something that most Canadians had probably never seen. The network cut to a shot of Inuk Elder Sally Webster inside the Senate chamber, striking a match on a red box and lighting the oil. “Oh! There it’s happening right as I speak, look at that,” said Barton.
Spread atop a nearby table were a few official documents and four medals. Each medal signifies an Order, a ceremonial office—the Order of Canada, say, or the Order of Military Merit—to which Simon would be inducted so she could carry out her responsibilities as the Crown’s representative in Canada. The display reminded me of the way at.óow, or sacred regalia, is set before witnesses at a Tlingit potlatch, or the way wampum treaty belts and gustoweh feather headdresses are laid at the front of a longhouse before the Haudenosaunee recite Kayanerenkó:wa, their Great Law of Peace. But of all the symbols endowed with special significance that day, it was the qulliq that stood out. And, boy, did Barton want to get her pronunciation right. “The qulliq, as it’s called,” she said. “I would imagine the very first time it’s been lit here, too, inside the Senate.”
At the head of the state, the tippy top, above the clamour of parliamentarians, premiers, and prime ministers—in fact, above all politicians and their policies—sits tradition. In Canada, as in the other commonwealth offspring of the British empire, the Crown is the sovereign. Appointed by the Crown, the governor general is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and constitutional head of state. Though the role is apolitical, the governor general can offer counsel to the prime minister. They bestow honours like the Order of Canada on worthy citizens. And they convene politicians and Canadians at home and abroad, setting the table for conversations that shape Canadian civic culture and identity.
The governor general is one of the oldest colonial institutions in North America and can be traced back to the early seventeeth century, and to the first governor of New France. After the British defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War, English governors assumed the office. The role was mandated during Confederation. A Canadian-born governor general, however, was not appointed for almost 300 years, until 1952, during the disintegration of the British empire. Seven years after that, the first French Canadian was sworn in.
Ever since, there has been an unofficial policy of alternating between anglophone and francophone heads of state. The idea is that, above the tensions of Canadian society—between English and French, Liberals and Conservatives, settlers and Indigenous—there is a common symbol, institution, and office that’s not mired in politics or policy. While the republic to Canada’s south wages cultural battles verging on civil war, the prevailing Canadian political philosophy is that “peace, order and good government” are achieved, in part, by keeping the Crown, represented by the governor general, above the fracas. That’s the Canadian way. But that’s not the tradition this story is about.
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IN MAY 2021, ground-penetrating radar detected more than 200 potential unmarked graves of children in an apple orchard beside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where my kyé7e (“kya-ah,” grandmother) completed high school. The discovery exposed the crimes underlying a nation built on land taken from Indigenous peoples—systemic abuse, assault, rape, even murder—and reinforced the need for a national reckoning. Makeshift memorials sprung up across the country. People took to the streets. Institutions named after the architects of cultural genocide changed their nomenclature. Statues fell. Churches were vandalized. Some even burned. And as more First Nations initiated their own investigations, the potential number of child-sized graves climbed into the thousands.
Less than two months after the discovery at Kamloops, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat Mary Jeannie May Simon to offer her a job. Canada has had four women (two of them refugees) and dozens of white men serve as governor general for a term that usually lasts five years. But there had never been an Indigenous person appointed. (New Zealand, another former settler colony of the British empire, has had three Māori governors general.)
Simon’s path to that role was unlike any walked by a governor general before. Like all Inuit born between 1941 and 1978, she was given a loonie-sized red metal disc as a form of identification when she was a child. It had an intricate picture of a crown on one side and her ID number on the other. Simon’s parents—her father a white store manager and her mother an Inuk woman—were not allowed to marry according to the policies of her father’s employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Canada took many of Simon’s community members from loving homes to residential schools. During World War II, Canada appropriated Inuit land for military bases and natural resources. In the 1950s and ’60s, Canada used relocated Inuit bodies and communities to lay claim to the far north in its tussle against other world powers. When those same world powers met to make decisions that would impact Inuit land, water, and life in the ’80s and ’90s, they did not initially give Inuit a seat at the table. Today, Inuit are one of the only linguistic groups in the world who constitute a majority in their region but cannot access social services in their primary language, Inuktut. Canada and the Crown have wronged them many times.
Simon spent much of her career fighting those wrongs. “I’ve been working on Indigenous rights for forty-seven years,” Simon told me. “I am first and foremost an Inuk.” And hers was often a winning fight. Unlike many other Indigenous peoples, Inuit held on to much of their territory, language, and culture. And when qallunaat (“ha-loo-not,” or colonizers) tried to take these, Inuit took the qallunaat on in their qallunaat courts, qallunaat negotiating rooms, and qallunaat parliament. In the ’70s, Inuit and their Cree neighbours stood up to Quebec and said that the province could not build an enormous complex of hydroelectric dams, which would permanently flood their lands along James Bay, without dealing with Indigenous peoples first. Their collective stand halted construction for a time and compelled the province to sign what is sometimes called the first “modern treaty,” in 1975. The agreement marked the end of the days when qallunaat could bulldoze Indigenous lands and peoples before we’d had our say. Simon cut her teeth on those negotiations. There aren’t many history books that tell the story of Simon and the Inuit movement. Indigenous history of any kind—the tragic or the triumphant—doesn’t get much ink. But if you check the record, you’ll see that at almost every turn, Mary Simon was there.
Her installation ceremony was held in the same building that, forty years earlier, was the main staging ground for negotiating the patriation of Canada’s Constitution from the British. As a member of the Inuit Committee on National Issues, Simon was one of the people who made sure Inuit specifically and Indigenous peoples collectively had our rights ensconced in the Constitution. (Today, there’s an Indigenous streetwear brand, Section 35, named for the clause that affirms those rights.) In one of the committee’s meetings with then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, held in March 1984, she insisted that gender and sexual equality for Indigenous women needed to be explicitly protected. Indigenous women—including her own mother—had lost their native status due to a provision in the Indian Act that stated a native woman who married a non-native man forfeited her native status. Trudeau disagreed, arguing that gender and sexual equality had already been addressed in the Constitution. The exchange stands out as one of the most significant, if overlooked, moments in Canadian feminist history.
“I wish you and your sisters would take it out of your head that somehow we are deliberately trying to frustrate the concept of equality. At least, in the law, everyone has assured you here that we are not,” Trudeau intoned, with an incredulity that bordered on condescension. Between sentences, he sucked the temple tip of his eyeglasses while he tried to set his argument straight. “You know, in a sense, you’re equal when you think you’re equal. And if you think you are unequal, the law won’t change much.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, I consider myself an equal,” responded Simon without batting an eye. “I am an Aboriginal representative who represents both male and female persons in Northern Quebec. I have always tried to be very unbiased towards whom I represent because I feel that, as people, we have one interest, and that is our collective and individual rights. And all I’m saying here is, as someone who represents both sides, I would like to see the equality clause once and for all settled.” She was on the winning side of that fight too. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended so that Indigenous women kept their status when marrying a non-native. Furthermore, women who married prior to the amendment could regain their status.
But Simon’s battles did not stop at the national level. In the 1990s, she outmanoeuvred American diplomats to win Inuit and other Arctic Indigenous peoples permanent seats on the Arctic Council, a multinational forum comprised of states and Indigenous peoples in the region. The Arctic Council is today the only international forum where Indigenous peoples sit at the same table as nation states. Step by step, Simon and other Inuit have crafted one of the greatest political traditions of any Indigenous or minority group in the world. “I knew Mary Simon before I actually met Mary Simon,” said Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national organization that represents 65,000 Inuit across Inuit Nunangat—Inuit homelands in Canada. He describes Simon as a leader with “a certain kind of power” rooted in grace, empathy, and presence. “She has been confident and poised in the face of colonial racism and the attitudes that Canadian politicians, including prime ministers of the day, had towards Indigenous peoples and especially Indigenous women,” said Obed.
That’s who Justin Trudeau called and asked to come to the other side of the table and help—as the Crown’s representative—his nation atone for its sins. Standing in the same room where she out-debated and out-negotiated prime ministers, the new governor general introduced herself in her mother tongue, a language where soft consonants catch supple vowels in the palate. “I was born Mary Jeannie May in Arctic Quebec, now known as Nunavik. My Inuk name is Ningiukudluk,” declared Her Excellency, who wore a stately black dress adorned with elegant floral designs beaded by Inuk artist Julie Grenier. Floral patterns and beads both arrived with the French in North America, where Indigenous peoples made them into enduring art. Then she looked at Trudeau. “And, prime minister, it means ‘bossy little old lady.’”
RIDEAU HALL, the governor general’s residence in Ottawa, is effectively a modest English-style palace. Fanning out across almost eighty acres in the affluent New Edinburgh neighbourhood, the estate is larger than some of the tracts of reserve land held by my First Nation, the Canim Lake Band, where houses are scarce and unpalatial. At Rideau Hall, there’s a rose garden, a cricket pitch, and, of course, an outdoor hockey rink in the winter. The hall is named after the nearby canal built to help fortify Canada against the threat of American invasion after the War of 1812. The walkway up to the Queen’s Entrance on the west side of the grounds is lined with trees and art. One piece, in particular, caught my eye—a carved cedar pole depicting a man holding a salmon above the two-headed serpent known as sisiutl and topped by a thunderbird, the mythic avian who shoots lightning from his eyes, flaps thunder from his wings, and fishes whales from the sea. The piece was carved by Mungo Martin, the Kwakwaka’wakw Michelangelo who played a leading role in the twentieth-century renaissance of Northwest Coast art. With its imperial history and Indigenous treasures, Rideau Hall feels like the setting for a Get Out-style Indigenous psychological horror film. It’s spooky.
Queen Elizabeth II had died a week before I visited. Her body lay in state on the other side of the Atlantic, in London’s Westminster Hall. At Rideau Hall, Canadians were encouraged to come and pay their respects, but few did. In front of the hall, there was a place to leave flowers and a book where mourners could pen their well wishes for the deceased monarch more than 5,000 kilometres away. My people travel great distances for funerals. After a death, we sit with the bodies of our kin for four days. A big wake is a sign of honour and respect. But as I approached the Queen’s Entrance, the grounds of the Crown’s Ottawa estate felt vast and empty. An Ipsos poll taken after the queen’s death found that 54 percent of Canadians believed their nation should sever formal ties with the monarchy. Anti-Crown sentiment has grown 10 percent since 2011, according to the research firm. Though I count myself among this growing disaffected majority, I still signed Her Majesty’s condolence book. “Me7 yecwmenstsut-k Kukpi7 Elizabeth,” I wrote in a language the Crown tried to scrub from my kyé7e’s tongue. It means: “You take care, Queen (Chief) Elizabeth.”
As I was departing, I spotted two men wearing Métis woven sashes and black vests beaded with golden vines of pastel-coloured flowers. The elder was Clément Chartier, ambassador of the Manitoba Métis Federation and someone who had advocated alongside Simon for the constitutional protection of Indigenous rights. Chartier was accompanied by Will Goodon, a cabinet minister of the Manitoba Métis. I asked the men if they were there to mourn the queen. “Us?” responded Chartier. “She stole our land!”
He was only half joking. The 1870 Manitoba Act promised Métis land on their native Red River. But the Crown reneged. In 1873 and 1874, Parliament revised the Manitoba Act eleven times to make it more difficult for Métis to exercise legal claims to land. Many Métis were also illiterate, making them more likely to fall through the cracks in nineteenth-century frontier bureaucracy and become targets for con men. The dispossession of Métis led to the North-West Resistance, during which Louis Riel, a Métis leader, founder of Manitoba, and Catholic revisionist prophet, led his people in an armed uprising against Canada. Riel’s people didn’t get their land back, but over time, Manitoba Métis land claims slogged their way through the judiciary. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had not lived up to the honour of the Crown. Despite that, the Manitoba Métis are still without their land.
In his years as president of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, Chartier refused to attend events hosted by the governor general. In his younger years, he was a rabble rouser. He knew Secwépemc Chief George Manuel, the second president of the National Indian Brotherhood, and says he was close to George’s activist son, Art. This was the heyday of the Red Power movement for native sovereignty. In 1973, a young Chartier and Art Manuel occupied the Department of Indian Affairs building in Ottawa for twenty-four hours. But like George Manuel, who accepted the Order of Canada from the governor general before his death, Chartier eventually came around to the benefits of working with the Crown. In the 2000s, he met with Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian Canadian who was the first Black governor general. In 2009, the then governor general hosted an event at Rideau Hall to inaugurate the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A few years after that, Chartier met the queen. “As I went along, I started feeling more a part of Canada and realized, if we were going to make headway, we would have to participate in these institutions,” Chartier explained. “The governor general is part of that.”
Though Indigenous peoples were mistreated by the Crown, a divorce from the monarchy would throw our rights into legal limbo.
Goodon, who is from the Turtle Mountains in Manitoba, respects Chartier’s more accommodating view but questions the need for the monarchy. He remembers how his father, a trapper who worked and lived in the bush, had to pay the Crown royalties for his pelts. National boundaries negotiated by faraway representatives of the Crown disrupted Métis life on the land. “What is the purpose of it?” he asked, rhetorically, of the monarchy. “I don’t know how it’s compatible with actual tenets of democracy.”
These are the tensions at the heart of Indigenous–Crown relations. On the one hand, laws like the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as well as treaties and land claims negotiated with the Crown (and often not with the Canadian government of the day) are the basis for Indigenous rights and title in Canadian law. In fact, the Royal Proclamation issued by King George III is sometimes called the Indian Magna Carta. But the taking of land, children, and human life was also carried out in the name of the Crown. The central premise of reconciliation is that these wrongs, which played out across centuries and a continent, and which Canada’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission deemed a “cultural genocide,” can be made right. But reasonable people might ask whether the Crown has ever had any honour and whether an institution that is definitionally undemocratic and imperial can meaningfully decolonize.
These are intractable questions. It would be challenging, if not impossible, for Canada to sever ties with the Crown. The House of Commons, Senate, all ten provinces, and hundreds of Indigenous communities would each have to give their consent for such a break. And of these parties, First Nations would likely be the hardest to convince. Though Indigenous peoples were mistreated by the Crown, a divorce from the monarchy would throw our rights into legal limbo. After the passing of the queen, the Assembly of First Nations, the national body representing Indian bands like my own, expressed condolences to the royal family and reiterated the value we place on the “sacred Treaty relationship with the British Crown.” While decolonization elsewhere meant colonists had to give up their colonies and colonial institutions, in Canada, the Crown and Indigenous peoples are stuck with one another.
The appointment of the first Indigenous governor general has deepened these colonial entanglements. “It is both wonderful and confusing,” Obed told me when we met at his office in downtown Ottawa. “It is such a great thing to have optimism and hope, especially in a party that has wronged you. But, at the same time, there is that other side of it where there is justifiable anger towards these institutions.”
It feels like a trap. On the one hand, of course you should go into the broken institution that harms our people and fix it. On the other hand, it’s a broken institution that harms our people.
THE SHORTWAVE RADIO buzzed and crackled as Jeannie Angnatuk twisted the dial to try to bring in the station. As we learn from Simon’s selected lectures, Inuit: One Future—One Arctic, Jeannie was her maternal grandmother. Simon carries her first name as a middle name. The radio belonged to Bob May, Simon’s father, the manager of the local Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. Though they lived in a tent deep in the bush near the Koksoak River, which drains into Ungava Bay on the north shore of Quebec, Angnatuk could sometimes catch the BBC. The static dimmed and the broadcast came in. I imagine Angnatuk recognized the familiar sound of Inuit music immediately: singing, likely accompanied by the hollow tik-tik, tik-tik of a stick on the wooden frame of a qilaut (drum). Maybe it was a song about migrating geese or a successful caribou hunt, or maybe it was a simple lullaby. Whatever it was, it was beautiful.
Angnatuk called outside to her grandchildren, the offspring of Bob May and Nancy Angnatuk-Askew. Simon was the oldest of four girls and the second oldest of eight siblings. Her grandmother taught them about Inuit culture and history. Simon knew to heed her call. “You have to listen to this,” Angnatuk told her family in Inuktitut as they huddled around the radio. “These are our relatives who live in faraway lands.” The singers came from a place called Akukituk, the Inuktitut word for Greenland. Inuit were all one people, explained Angnatuk, and they were going to be united someday.
About 1,000 years ago, the ancestors of Inuit spread out across the Arctic. They travelled by the stars, fished Arctic char with three-pronged spears called kakivak, and hunted walrus, seals, polar bears, and even bowhead whales, which can weigh as much as 54.4 tonnes, with bows, spears, and harpoons. They designed some of the warmest clothes in the world and perfected the kayak. Eventually, they reached Greenland, where they discovered the Vikings. The Vikings called Inuit “skraeling,” or “wretched,” same as the other natives they encountered. Norse and Inuit coexisted for centuries, possibly until the medieval warm period ended, but the former’s culture was not as well suited to the cold as that of Inuit. Most begin the story of colonization with Columbus in 1492, but in the first encounter between colonists and Indigenous peoples on the North American continent, it was actually Inuit who prevailed and Europeans who mysteriously disappeared, by 1450. Years later, Simon would say it was her grandmother’s dream, inspired by the voices of Greenlandic Inuit, that inspired her own work.
Simon was born in 1947 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quebec. Bob and Nancy raised their children with Jeannie in what was then Fort-Chimo and is now Kuujjuaq, Quebec. It was a time of immense change. Though Inuit had encountered qallunaat centuries before, colonization came late. “The modern world arrived slowly in some places in the world, and quickly in others. But in the Arctic, it appeared in a single generation,” writes Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk activist and author also from Kuujjuaq, in The Right to Be Cold. “In a sense, Inuit of my generation have lived in both the ice age and the space age.”
In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled that Inuit were to be classified as “Indians” under the Constitution and should therefore come under Canadian jurisdiction. During World War II, the United States Air Force built bases on Inuit land in Kuujjuaq (Fort-Chimo), Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), and Paallavvik (Padloping Island). These were used as pit stops for planes en route to Europe. It was also during World War II that the Canadian government created the disc number identification system. Simon’s number was E9-761: “E” meant she was from the east of Gjoa Haven, “9” meant she was from northern Quebec, and “761” was her personal number. The discs and numbers were discontinued in the 1970s, after Inuit adopted last names through a government program called Project Surname.
The Crown came north too. Simon recalls her grandmother owned a picture of the queen and talked about the monarch with her friends. “I remember how much she was revered,” said the governor general. Despite Angnatuk’s fondness for the queen, subjugation of the Arctic to Crown law was one of the most harrowing eras in Inuit history. “In the period leading up to the 1960s and 1970s, the relationship between the Europeans and Inuit was a grossly one-sided one,” wrote Simon in an article for International Journal. “We Inuit suffered a steady loss of control over our ability to make decisions—decisions for ourselves and for the lands and waters that have sustained us for thousands of years. We became a colonized people.”
In an interview with Up Here magazine, Simon remembered walking to school with her friends—skipping, laughing, fighting with the boys, and chatting in Inuktitut. But when they approached campus, one of them would say, “Stop talking!” And they’d fall silent—no Inuktitut, no English. Inuit have a word for the feeling the children had: ilira—a “mix of apprehension and fear that causes a suppression of opinion and voice,” explains Hugh Brody in The Other Side of Eden. “When southerners told Inuit to do things that were against Inuit tradition, or related to the things that qallunaat wanted from the North, Inuit felt that they had to say yes. They felt too much ilira to say no.”
After grade six, Inuit children from Kuujjuaq were taken away to a residential school in Churchill, Manitoba. But not Simon—her father was white. Nancy and Bob’s children, the only Inuit kids left in their village, were homeschooled. Simon remembered when crying adults, after church on Sundays, would hug her and her brothers and sisters hard because their own babies were gone. “They missed their children so much that they almost treated us like we were their children,” Simon told Up Here. “The winters were long and lonely.”
Children weren’t the only ones taken from their homes. In the 1950s, Canada relocated Inuit to settlements. Two of the most infamous relocations took place in 1953 and 1955, when Canada removed Inuit from Inukjuak in northern Quebec and Pond Inlet on Baffin Island to two High Arctic settlements: one at Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island and another near the military base at Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. The official reason for this forced migration was humanitarian. Inuit in Inukjuak, according to the government, were overpopulated and dependent on welfare. But according to Inuit, relocated families were coerced into leaving. In the High Arctic, they served as “human flagpoles” buffering Canadian sovereignty during the Cold War. There, they suffered. Communities splintered, with wedges driven between families and generations. They struggled to adjust to the long, dark winters and short summers. Their deep knowledge of the Inukjuak ecosystem didn’t translate to the scant flora and fauna of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay. Some contracted tuberculosis. Others nearly starved.
By the 1960s, most Inuit were living in settlements. But removal and resettlement did not put an end to what the Canadian government had come to call the “Eskimo Problem.” Inuit relied on sled dogs for hunting and transportation. A good sled dog could find its way home in a storm. Dogs were known to dig out igloos buried in winter and pull fallen hunters out of broken sea ice. “The husky dogs allow us to be at peace with ourselves, providing us with the ability to provide food for our families, and knowing that they will alert us if there is any danger,” said a hunter in the documentary Echo of the Last Howl. “Those dogs are the best lifeguards.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, according to Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and government officials travelled the region hunting for Inuit dog teams. The Mounties claimed that many were infected with canine distemper and had turned violent. The dogs were confiscated and sent south for so-called health care. They were never seen again. More often, hunters were told to bring their dogs to a specific area, where the animals were immediately shot by police. “In some instances,” writes Watt-Cloutier, “the carcasses were thrown in piles and burned. All this happened in view of their shocked owners.” This slaughter deprived Inuit of the mobility that was the basis of their livelihood. Inuit culture transformed rapidly as a cash economy replaced the traditional one. Without their children, dogs, and way of life, many turned to alcohol.
To survive, Inuit had to learn to live in Inuit and qallunaat worlds—ice age and space age—simultaneously. Simon, a child of both, was exceptionally good at cultural time and space travel. “She was truly raised in two worlds,” her husband, Whit Fraser, told me. He recalls sitting around the table with Mary and her parents, Bob and Nancy. “The languages would shift depending on who was the centre of the conversation or who was speaking,” he said. “Inuktitut between Bob and Nancy. Inuktitut between Nancy and her mother. English between her and her father. English with me. English with me and her mother and father. And that worked. I don’t understand Inuktitut, and I certainly don’t speak it. But I never felt left out of the conversation.”
Sometimes it seems as though Inuit are being punished for holding on to their language. After Simon was announced governor general, French Canadians complained she couldn’t speak French. The day school Simon attended in Kuujjuaq didn’t teach it. Though the governor general is bilingual in English and Inuktitut, one of the first, original, and oldest languages of this land, that wasn’t good enough for some French Canadians. Hundreds penned formal complaints about Simon’s appointment to the commissioner of official languages, who opened an investigation. A lawsuit has even been filed.
As the governor general has no policy-making privileges, her influence over reconciliation relies on her ability to connect heads of state and government with Indigenous peoples—to navigate conversations about and across painful histories that are still being unearthed. Simon has lived those realities and navigated those difficult conversations her entire life. “The path to reconciliation is really about talking to one another,” Simon told me, in an interview, of her decision to take the governor general’s job. “Having the conversations. Telling each other our own stories. And also to talk about what’s been happening in Canada in regards to Indigenous peoples. Because many, many Canadians don’t know.”
MARY SIMON SAT in the dark boardroom of a Montreal skyscraper with that feeling of ilira creeping up in her chest. These were the offices of the James Bay Energy Corporation, a subsidiary of Hydro-Québec that was building one of the largest hydro-electric dams in the world—on Inuit and Cree land in northern Quebec. The James Bay Project, as it was called, was announced by Quebec premier Robert Bourassa in 1971. It would divert or dam several rivers and construct eight generating stations in northern Quebec. One generating station, named after Bourassa, would create a man-made waterfall taller than Niagara Falls. Designed to fulfill a campaign promise, the James Bay Project would produce thousands of jobs and enough power for Quebec to begin exporting energy to the United States. But as a consequence, an area about the size of Jamaica would be submerged. Inuit and Cree who lived on that land were not consulted before construction began. In 1973, a Superior Court judge granted these Inuit and Cree an injunction, but the James Bay Energy Corporation appealed. So as they sat across the table from provincial negotiators, construction on the James Bay Project continued. “We were a rag-tag, poorly funded group of Inuit and Cree up against governments and very powerful industrial interests,” Simon later recalled.
Just a few years earlier, in 1969, the same year prime minister Pierre Trudeau published a white paper proposing to abolish the Indian Act to permanently assimilate Indigenous peoples, Simon took a job with the CBC Northern Service. She produced radio and TV programs in Inuktitut, wrote for Inuit Today magazine, and learned about the James Bay Project. These were the early days of the Inuit movement and the heyday of the American Indian Movement when diasporic Inuit from different regions came together for the first time. Like other Indigenous peoples, Inuit often gathered in cities far from their homelands. They would discuss political strategies to protect and reclaim their rights, culture, and land, over traditional foods. Frozen, but more often dried, caribou, fish, and seal from the north would be laid out on cardboard in the middle of the room. Attendees would cut a hunk, usually with one shared semicircular knife called an ulu.
At meetings of this budding brotherhood, Simon stood out. “Mary was part of that group of Inuit who were forging the path towards Inuit being recognized as their own distinctive group of Aboriginal peoples in Canada,” recalled Nancy Karetak-Lindell, a former member of Parliament representing Nunavut. “She was one of the very few women in leadership at that time, which didn’t go unnoticed by young women who were watching all of this.”
Simon played a role negotiating the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement signed in 1975. She later described these negotiations as her “first real experience” working on Indigenous rights. The agreement recognized that Inuit and Cree should at least have some say in economic development on lands they had never legally relinquished. It affirmed their rights to hunt, trap, fish, and self-govern in the James Bay region. But it also extinguished their legal title to the territory. In exchange, Quebec agreed to pay $225 million to support Inuit and Cree education, social services, and economic development over twenty years. Three Indigenous-owned corporations were created to manage the settlement money. Thus, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association became a corporation called Makivik, which means “to rise up.” Watt-Cloutier writes about a member of the negotiating team who later compared the agreement to an old tale about six hunters who can’t find any game and have to eat the leftovers of a picky snowy owl. “Our trying to get legal concepts and legal rights recognized by the government is often like the snowy owl—we often have to eat what he won’t eat, and we have to make do with that. But, hopefully, that will give us enough energy to go on with the hunt.”
In the Inuit hunt for rights, Simon’s responsibilities were growing. Elected secretary of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association in 1976, she presided over the implementation of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement as vice president of Makivik from 1979 to 1982 and then as president from 1982 to 1985. Those were the same years that she advocated for the recognition of Indigenous rights in the Constitution as a member of the Inuit Committee on National Issues. She later played a prominent role in the negotiation of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, which pushed further constitutional reforms. During the Charlottetown Accord negotiations, Simon was one of a trio of Indigenous women dubbed the “Mothers of Confederation,” in part because the accord codified the Indigenous right to self-government. A referendum on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 was defeated by a coalition that included former prime minister Pierre Trudeau as well as voters in Quebec and the western provinces. In the Northwest Territories, home to many Inuit, a majority of voters approved the referendum. Canada has not attempted constitutional reform since. But in 1993, Inuit won the largest land claim in Canadian history and created their own self-governing territory anyway: Nunavut.
In a span of less than thirty years, Inuit wrestled power away from qallunaat and transformed how their lands—fully one-third of the country—are governed. Simon’s rise coincided with that history, but her political genius came into its own when she led not just Inuit but all Indigenous peoples to new heights.
MARY SIMON WALKED into the meeting in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and began looking for the placard indicating her seat. According to Fraser’s memoir, True North Rising, space had been set in that sterile way hotel conference rooms are done up: clothed tables arranged in a rectangle so that diplomats and negotiators can converse as equals—eye to eye, nation to nation, sovereign to sovereign. The year was 1990. Simon was president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international body representing about 160,000 Inuit in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Chukotka (Russia). In 1977, the council was formed as “a means of ensuring protection of Inuit culture and the Arctic’s resources,” writes Simon in her book Inuit: One Future—One Arctic. In 1986, Simon was tapped to lead the organization.
The purpose of the 1990 meeting was to negotiate the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, an agreement among nations with territory in the Arctic Circle to monitor and protect the Arctic environment as well as its flora and fauna from global warming, pollutants, and waste. If you were to look at the globe from the north, you would see that Inuit Nunangat, Greenland, Chukotka, and Alaska form a sort of half crescent around the Arctic Ocean—or, as some oceanographers call it, the “Arctic Mediterranean.” In this northern sea world, an archipelago of ninety-four major islands and more than 35,000 minor ones, Inuit are the dominant population in all but Chukotka. And yet, at the table of nations making decisions about the future of the Arctic, no Inuit had a seat.
The United States’ lead negotiator, ambassador R. Rucker Scully, made it clear that the Americans wanted only “sovereign” nations at the table. He told Simon that she was not a participant in the Yellowknife meeting, merely a presenter. Because she was not a diplomat from one of the five member nations of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy Group, she would have no seat.
For Simon and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, this would not do. She marched out of the meeting and into the lobby and gave waiting reporters a story: “Arctic Inuit Not Welcome at Arctic Conference.” Canadian bureaucrats, who did not want to appear prejudiced, scrambled to get Simon away from the journalists’ cameras, notebooks, and recorders. With the leverage created by the bad press, a new set of negotiations began, with the member nations attempting to placate Simon and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Simon and Inuit had, by then, already reformed Canadian sovereignty to accommodate Indigenous peoples. Now they were aiming to do the same to the international order.
In 1994, prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Simon as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs. In that role, she was tasked with helping bring together an eight-country group now known as the Arctic Council. In Ottawa, in 1996, Simon negotiated seats on the Arctic Council for Indigenous peoples as “permanent participants.” The designation gives Indigenous peoples less leverage than a member state but more than a non-Arctic observer state (such as China, Germany, or the United Kingdom), creating an entirely new framework for Indigenous influence over international policy making and politics.
As permanent participants, Indigenous organizations have submitted proposals and consulted with voting member states to ensure Indigenous rights and Indigenous knowledge are included and respected in international agreements across a wide range of issues, from conservation to shipping corridors and free trade agreements. “Permanent participants were able to sit at the table with the senior Arctic officials and the ministers and to have the dialogue that is absolutely necessary for consensus building,” Simon later said. “We couldn’t go much further than that. So we agreed to this status.” The six Indigenous organizations on the Arctic Council remain the only Indigenous peoples with a say in any international body. This might sound like little more than a clerical change, but it’s not. In the Arctic, which comprises 4 percent of the Earth’s surface, Indigenous peoples have a seat at the table of nations.
In True North Rising, Fraser recalls attending a formal dinner in Washington, DC, as chair of the Canadian Polar Commission. He was seated next to an American diplomat who worked for Scully, and the two men were getting along just fine. Then, out of the blue, the American said, “Tell me, Whit, there is this very difficult Inuit woman, Mary Simon. Do you know her?”
The woman sitting on the other side of Fraser nearly choked on her food. Her name was Marianne Stenbaek. A McGill University professor, Stenbaek was one of Mary Simon’s best friends. “I do know her,” replied Fraser, not missing a beat. “Very well, in fact, and you are right, she can be very headstrong.”
MY PEOPLE, the Secwepemc and St’át’imc nations from what is now British Columbia, are quite Catholic. We baptize our children, eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, and sing hymns in our Salish tongue. Though we don’t often speak of Coyote, the trickster from whom we are descended, we still cause trouble, like he did, from time to time. In the 1990s, for example, activists from our nations put their bodies in the paths of trucks hauling the last old-growth trees out of our forests. The St’át’imc, my grandfather’s people, composed a song back in those days. It goes: “Hey-ya-ho, hey-ya hey-yo. Canada is all Indian land!” That’s the song protesters sang to shame Justin Trudeau when he arrived at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2022 to mark the end of a year of mourning for the dead children hidden in the former school’s apple orchard.
And maybe Trudeau deserved it. Though many of us are Catholic Indians, the Secwepemc still practise our traditional funerary and mourning rites. These last a year, during which we do not hunt, fish, or harvest our traditional foods. We put away all photographs of the dead. Long ago, we would not even speak the dead’s name. After that year, we return to the grave. We give away the deceased’s belongings. And, often, we feast and play a traditional gambling game, lahal. Though he had been invited to Kamloops for the first ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Trudeau observed the holiday commemorating the genocide of our children by taking his family on vacation. So when it was the prime minister’s turn to speak to survivors and descendants in Kamloops, he was heckled. The task of delivering a meaningful eulogy on behalf of Canada fell to Mary Simon.
Though she has served for less than two years, Simon has represented the Crown during one of the most tumultuous eras in its history. There was a pandemic and then a backlash against the public health measures instituted to contain it, culminating in an attempted takeover of Ottawa by a convoy of truckers. There was a federal election, a visit from the pope who apologized to residential school survivors, and the death of the queen. There were, in other words, many turning points where the nation might have lost the plot. But that day, Simon wasn’t speaking from a Canadian perspective. She was speaking from an Indigenous one. “Today, we make ourselves heard across the country,” said the governor general. “Although it is hard, we are telling Canadians and the world about our wounds and pain.”
The governor general, like her people, has persisted against immense unfairness and indignity. Though Inuit have beaten qallunaat at their own game at the local, territorial, provincial, national, and international levels, Inuit have not escaped the death trap of colonization. Today the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world. While the United Nations considers global warming of two degrees to be potentially catastrophic, average temperatures in the past century have already risen by two or more degrees in some parts of the Arctic. Warmer temperatures thin the ice, making it dangerous to hunt. They soften the snow, making it difficult to build igloos. They make the game smaller and scarcer. And they change animal behaviours and migration routes, rendering knowledge built over generations of observation useless. Though Inuit have produced almost none of the emissions now heating the planet, the cold environment that makes them who they are is melting—a portent for the rest of us.
And yet I wouldn’t bet against the first peoples of the far north. They long outlasted the first colonists they met. Their children were taken. Their dogs were shot. They were relocated. Their lands were flooded. And they were told repeatedly they had no place nor claim in the courts, negotiating rooms, or parliaments where decisions about their lives were made for them. And yet, time and again, they figured out how to make themselves heard. And then Mary Simon got them to the head of the table. Monarchs die. Empires fall. The Vikings are long gone. The Soviet, French, and British empires too. And here Inuit are, still gathering over the bounty of their lands and waters, telling stories of heroic leaders like Simon as they plot out the next ways they’re going to outfox qallunaat. That’s how it’s been the past fifty years. That’s likely how it will be for the next fifty. And who is to say that tradition—the tradition of the qulliq, not the Crown—won’t carry on long into the future?
Simon might be the representative of an office rooted in Canadian and British imperialism. But she rose to that office through an Inuit political tradition that successfully combatted imperialism and transformed Canadian sovereignty and the international order in a remarkably short time frame—in no small part, because of her. Most people have no clue that Indigenous peoples even have political traditions. To my knowledge, few, if any, political science departments in the world bother to study this history and look at these questions that way. But those interested in winning power for the Indigenous and colonized world would be wise to know the story of Simon and her people.
“There is a word in Inuktitut, my mother tongue: Ajuinnata,” said Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon as she brought her eulogy in Kamloops to a close. “It means to never give up, to keep going, no matter how difficult the cause may be. You never gave up. You continued to tell your stories—continued to tell these children’s stories. Together you confront this painful past. Together, you will make sure these children are brought home. And together we will continue building a better future for Indigenous peoples.”
Julian Brave NoiseCat, writer and filmmaker, is a visiting fellow of the Center for Racial Justice at the University of Michigan and a fellow of the Type Media Center.