Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

A longtime advocate for Inuit rights and a former leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference has been tapped as Canada’s 30th governor general, the first Indigenous person to hold the office.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of Mary Simon on June 6 followed by a press conference at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. Trudeau said Queen Elizabeth II has approved the appointment.

Trudeau praised Simon, Inuk, as a lifelong bridge-builder who brings together people from diverse backgrounds.

“It is truly an honor to introduce Canada’s governor general-designate, Ms. Mary Simon,” Trudeau said. “After 154 years, our country takes a historic step. I cannot think of a better person to meet this moment.”

The governor general is the viceregal, or representative, of Canada’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and holds a largely ceremonial position that is nonpartisan and apolitical. Since Canada is a constitutional monarchy, where the duties of state and head of government are distinct, the governor general represents the powers and responsibilities of the queen.

Simon began her remarks during the press conference by speaking in Inuktitut, followed by English.

She thanked the prime minister and said, “I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation.’

The 73-year-old mother of three was once a broadcaster for CBC North and later began her career as a public servant when she was elected secretary of the board of directors of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association. She helped lead the circumpolar conference, an organization representing Inuit in all Arctic countries, and is a past president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national Inuit organization. 

She served as Canadian ambassador to Denmark and chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She was also a member of the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the North American Free Trade Commission on Environmental Cooperation. 

The announcement comes as Canada reels from the discovery of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves at former Indian residential schools.

According to the governor general’s official government website, “The governor general encourages dialogue, nurtures a sense of shared purpose, identity, compassion and achievement, and promotes respect for the diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives of all Canadians. In all things, the governor general fosters a spirit of inclusiveness that views diversity as a strength to be celebrated and encouraged.”

In Canada’s upcoming federal election this fall, Simon’s duty as governor general will require her to dissolve Parliament in order to trigger an election. She will do so at the request of the prime minister.

Simon was raised in the village of Kuujjuaq, on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec. Her mother was a local Inuk woman and her father worked at a Hudson’s Bay Company post.

“I spent my adolescence in Nunavik, living a very traditional lifestyle many months of the year,” she said. “My grandmother and mother were my teachers and mentors.”

Simon credited her father with teaching her about the non-Native world and helping her build connections between both worlds.

“We must come to terms with the atrocities of the past and work towards the promise of a better tomorrow,” she said. “If we embrace our common humanity, Canada’s brightest days are yet to come.”

The governor general position has been vacant since Julie Payette resigned in January after a scathing independent report on a toxic work environment that developed during her tenure.

Indigenous leaders throughout Canada praised and congratulated Simon on her appointment.

“Mary is a diplomat, advocate and a strong Inuk woman,” Perry Bellegarde, the outgoing national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said. “I look forward to working with her as the Crown’s representative in Canada.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.