In the very spot where she went head to head with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau during the constitutional talks in the early 1980s, Mary Simon was back in what is now the temporary home of the Senate of Canada for the ceremony to install her as Canada’s 30th governor general and first Indigenous person to hold the position.
“Where we gather today is of enormous significance to me. Thirty-nine years ago, when this was the government conference centre, I worked with other Indigenous leaders and first ministers to have our rights affirmed in the Constitution of Canada,” said Simon near the beginning of her speech.
“That moment made this one possible.”
Simon, from Kangiqsualujjuaq in Nunavik in subarctic Quebec, was the last dignitary to speak at her installation which she did so in Inuktitut, English and some French.
“I have heard from Canadians who have expressed their support in my commitment to learn French, and have even offered to assist me in my training,” she said.
Simon touched on a number of issues during her 21 minute speech including climate change and the effect that is having on the lives of Inuit across the Arctic.
“Canada is an Arctic nation. Our Arctic is one of the most unique places on the planet—from spring geese to winter darkness, to some of the largest wildlife migrations anywhere on earth. Our North is also a well-lived and lived-in homeland for Inuit, First Nations and Métis people,” she said.
“For many years, Canada has experienced a disproportionate level of impact from climate change because the Arctic is warming faster than almost anywhere else on the planet. The twin global crises of nature destruction and climate change are undoubtedly the challenge of our time. For evidence, we need only look at the Arctic, and what has happened this past month across the country: the devastating impacts of forest fires, prolonged droughts, record heat waves.
“I believe that in order to have a healthy future, we must reset our thinking to understand that nature contains and creates our climate. Our climate allows society to be possible, and within our society is our economy.”
Simon promised, as governor general, to “promote and recognize leading examples of community and Indigenous-driven conservation and of climate action” that can inspire “Canadians to do the same.”
When she was arrived outside the Senate, Simon was greeted by a performance by the Ottawa River Singers, a local drum troupe that often plays at ceremonies and events around Ottawa.
Inside, the new governor general was welcomed to the ceremony by a beating drum and a prayer and greeting from Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda who was holding an eagle feather.
“On behalf of the Algonquin Nation, I sincerely welcome you to the homeland of the Algonquin people,” Commanda started. “We greet you with kindness and love as our relative. May the Creator and our ancestors bless you every day in your responsibilities as the new governor general. I call on the words of my late grandfather William Commanda, ‘one mind, one heart, one determination.’ In essence Ms. Simon, your focus on reconciliation, education, wellness and youth, is the one mind, the one heart and the one determination for a brighter Canada.”
Simon also spoke of bringing the country together in her speech.
She applauded Trudeau for his efforts at reconciliation and said the country will be stronger if everyone embraces it.
“Since the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation report six years ago, we have learned as a country that we need to learn the real history of Canada. Embracing this truth makes us stronger as a nation, unites Canadian society and teaches our kids that we must always do our best, especially when it’s hard,” said Simon. The discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of residential schools in recent weeks has horrified me, along with all Canadians.
“A lot of people think that reconciliation will be completed through projects and services. All Canadians deserve access to services.
“My view is that reconciliation is a way of life and requires work every day. Reconciliation is getting to know one another.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Simon’s appointment on July 6 after his previous pick resigned after complaints came to light from inside the office of Julie Payette.
Trudeau said at the ceremony that Simon is exactly the kind of representative the country needs at this time.
“In Canada, perhaps more than any other place on earth we’re defined by our diversity. We’re still a country that is still in many ways, young and yet Indigenous Peoples have called this place home for millenia. We are a country of vast Arctic spaces and busy city skylines, of Prairies and coasts, of French and English and of Indigenous languages. This is a big place.
“This is a diverse place and so we need people like Ms. Simon because we need people e who build bridges and brings us together.”
Simon’s past sets her up to succeed in her role. She has been Canada’s representative on the Inuit Circumpolar Council, is a former Canadian ambassador to Denmark and was president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
“Our society must recognize together our moments of regret, alongside those that give us pride, because it creates space for healing, acceptance and the rebuilding of trust. I will strive to build bridges across the diverse backgrounds and cultures that reflect our great country’s uniqueness and promise.
“I pledge to meet Canadians in all provinces and territories to learn first-hand what people are facing, and what could be done to make their lives better.”
At the installation, Simon wore a dress and jacket by designer Victoria Okpik from Quartaq, Nunavik (Quebec), the first Inuk woman to graduate in Fashion Design from LaSalle College in Montreal. The hemline of the jacket is subtle and dark, but has a trim that belongs on an Amautiq, a traditional coat of Inuit women designed to carry babies.
“It is a beautiful day,” said Commanda in closing her greeting. “Today we are here to celebrate your accomplishments, to wish you well, to express community support, your family and Inuit community uphold you with pride and Indigenous and Canadian people share in their pride.
“In the spirit of love, God bless you Mary Simon and may you walk softly upon Mother Earth with the Seven Grandfathers.”