By Stephen Hendrie
On Sunday evening July 25, 2021, it poured rain in Ottawa. The kind of rain that drenches you from head to toe in an instant. The kind of rain that gave the city a good scrubbing, as if it was put through a car wash. But by the time Monday morning rolled around the rain had left, the sun was shining, and it was a bright new day, in more ways than one.
July 26, 2021, will go down in Canadian history as the day our first Indigenous governor general – Her Excellency Mary Simon – was sworn in during an installation ceremony that reflected Mary Simon’s language and culture from the Nunavik region. It was also a socially-distanced ceremony as it took place, hopefully, in the waning months of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Inuit from across Nunavik watched and listened to the ceremony, as did Inuit across the Arctic, First Nations in remote reserves, Métis in Manitoba and across the country, with fellow Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
National media arrived early to set up in front of the Senate of Canada building on Wellington Street. The temporary Senate building is the former Government of Canada Conference Centre, and originally the Ottawa train station. A crowd of well wishers had gathered in front of the historic Chateau Laurier hotel across the street, waiting for the prime minister and his wife, and Governor General Designate Mary Simon, and her husband Whit Fraser to arrive, shortly before 11 am.
When Mary Simon and Whit Fraser stepped out of the large black government vehicle a huge cheer emerged from the crowd, with shouts of “Congratulations Mary!” clearly audible. It was a beautiful moment in our history as a nation. Mary and Whit casually spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire, and then turned towards four First Nations drummers from the Ottawa River Singers.
In Kuujjuaq that morning, Mayor Sammy Koneak was on the radio letting people know there would be a watching party at the Katittavik Town Hall Theatre, and if anyone needed rides to call in. Minnie Grey, Executive Director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services went to Katittavik to watch along with other residents from Kuujjuaq. “Everybody was very proud. We were cheering. We were standing up when they were asked to stand up. We followed the ceremony like we were there! We’re very happy for Mary and for Whit, and I know she’ll do a fine job, like she has done in any of her capacities.”
Watching from home in Kuujjuaq, Makivvik President Pita Aatami had been fielding many media calls leading up to the ceremony. “We’re getting very good exposure, and people are understanding a lot more about Inuit than they ever have. People never really took notice of us before this actually happened, to have an Inuk as Governor General of Canada.”
In Kangiqsualujjuaq Makivvik Vice-President, Economic Development, Maggie Emudluk was catching a plane. She said she had to check in before 11 am, but listened to the first part on the radio. Her flight was delayed until 1:30, so she could watch it on TV. “It was a very special connection. Knowing Mary is from our part of the world. We were both born at the old Hudson’s Bay Post – Illutaliviniq – so that is extra special for me. She was so calm and natural, and that’s kind of who Inuit are.”
Maggie noted that there is a strong family bond. “My parents and her parents were very close, because my father also had an outfitting camp in the 1960s where the May family used to visit.” While watching the ceremony Maggie imagined her mother and Mary’s mother watching from above. “I was almost listening to them chatting, looking at TV, it would have been nice if they could have seen it, maybe they were watching too.”
They would have seen an historic installation ceremony marked with traditional and contemporary Inuit, First Nations, Métis, and Canadian cultural elements. A traditional qulliq lamp was lit and attended to by Inuit elder Sally Webster and was assisted by Tooneejoulee Kootoo-Chiarello. David Serkoak drummed them into the Senate chamber. Opening remarks were made by elder Claudette Commanda from the Algonquin Nation. The first song, Arnaq, was by Inuit singer Elisapie.
“I’m saying ‘I’m a little girl, I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother’,” said Elisapie. “It’s pretty much saying that we have more than just one personality as women – we are many things, and we are very maternal.” Her presentation was contemporary, accompanied on guitar by Jean-Sebastien Williams.
There were other inspiring performances as well. Franco-Manitoban Métis singer-songwriter Andrina Turenne sang En Plein Coeur Mai (In the Heart of May). Tim Baker from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, sang Songbird. Quebecer Lunou Zucchini sang Hymne à l’espoir (Hymn to Hope). Marie-Josée Lord, a Quebecer born in Haiti, sang the National Anthem.
At 11:20, inside the Senate, Mary Simon said, “I do – Oui, je le jure” to the three oaths required to become the Governor General of Canada. They are: the Oath of Allegiance, the Oath of the Office of the Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, and the Oath of the Keeper of the Great Seal of Canada. She then signed the Oath Registry, followed by the Chief Justice, Prime Minister, and Interim Clerk of the Privy Council. At that point the Governor General’s flag was raised to full mast on the Peace Tower, and a 21-gun salute rang out from Parliament Hill.
In his address, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “true leadership is based on what you do for those around you. In this moment of unprecedented change, fighting the climate crisis, and the end of the pandemic, we need your vision of a stronger Canada, which will help build a more just and equitable society.”
Then our newly sworn in Governor General, Her Excellency Mary Simon gave her inaugural address. She said how honoured she is to take on this position. She spoke about growing up in Kangiqsualujjuaq and Kuujjuaq, both in Inuktitut and English. She spoke about overcoming fear as a youth. “It took time before I gained the self-confidence to assert myself and my beliefs in the non-Indigenous world. But when I came to understand that my voice had power and that others were looking to me to be their voice, I was able to let go of my fear.”
She covered important themes in her speech, directly addressing the major issue of the day – climate change – noting the Arctic is warming faster than almost anywhere else on the planet. She noted the importance of the Arctic Council, which she worked to create in 1996 in Ottawa.
As a longtime champion of mental health, Mary Simon stated, “As governor general I am committed to using this moment in our country’s history to build on the work of de-stigmatizing mental health so it is viewed through the same lens as physical ailments, and receives the same attention, compassion and understanding.” She also spoke French and again vowed to learn the language, and thanked Canadians who have reached out to offer support in learning it.
As our first Indigenous governor general, she also addressed the importance of reconciliation for Canada. She said, “My view is that reconciliation is a way of life and requires work every day. Reconciliation is getting to know one another.” She closed by saying, “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,” and noted that she is honoured that Rideau Hall will be the family home, with her husband Whit, and dog Neva. They also plan to live and work at the Citadelle in Quebec City.
The Governor General of Canada has considerable responsibility. Canada is a constitutional monarchy. There is a clear division between the head of state – the governor general, and the head of government – the prime minister. The governor general acts as the representative of the Crown – Elizabeth ll – in Canada.
As the Queen’s representative, the governor general summons, prorogues, and dissolves Parliament; authorizes treaties; receives and sends ambassadors; commissions officers in the armed forces; and gives royal assent to bills that have passed both the House of Commons and the Senate.
Based on constitutional convention, the governor general exercises these actions with advice from the prime minister. The governor general retains special personal authority in times of emergency or exceptional circumstances, which includes the power to appoint or dismiss a prime minister, or dissolve Parliament. In Canadian history it has only happened twice (in 1891 and 1893) when a governor general has had to designate a prime minister. In 1926 Governor General Viscount Byng refused Prime Minister King’s request to dissolve Parliament. This became known as the King-Byng affair.
The governor general also holds the constitutional rights of the head of state, which include: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. As a result, the governor general receives cabinet minutes, regular visits from the prime minister, senior government officials, and Privy Council Office.
The governor general is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and swears in cabinet ministers. The Canadian system of honours is administered by the governor general, including the Order of Canada, and the Order of Military Merit. The governor general is official host to visiting heads of state and can represent Canada abroad.
Reaction to the appointment of Mary Simon as Canada’s first Indigenous governor general was extremely positive. The Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – a position Mary Simon held in the past – was jubilant at the news of Mary’s appointment. Dalee Sambo Dorough, based in Anchorage, Alaska, also thought that as governor general, Mary Simon could have unique influence on government policy.
“I think that given the current conditions, and the present political climate in Canada, especially with the uncovering of the graves of the Indigenous children at the various residential schools, and the very recent history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” said Dalee, “and then layer on all the other challenges facing our people and facing the planet, and think about the role of Inuit, and the role of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, in relation to all these challenges swirling around us. So, it’s my hope that in terms of policy, in terms of appointments, in terms of providing council to Prime Minister Trudeau and future prime ministers that that space is taken up in an active way and also one rooted with the cultural integrity that I know runs through her blood, but also the blood of all Inuit, and all Indigenous peoples. So my strong hope is that the position is not only carried with its pomp and circumstance, but also more significantly, with substance and action.”
Similarly, Brad Morse, Professor of Law at Thompson River University in Kamloops, B.C., and international scholar on Indigenous rights, shared the opinion that, “Clearly, they will have private conversations, in which I would expect that Mary would not only “advise,” but “encourage” the prime minister to pay attention to particular concerns, especially in northern Canada, obviously in the four Inuit regions. I suspect she will do it perhaps more generally, on ssues around climate change, and transformation of the Arctic Ocean and open water, and all of those factors, of permafrost, melting, and on the environmental side, on the impact of traditional harvesting, for Inuit and for other Indigenous peoples.”
Back in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Maggie Emudluk also hopes Mary Simon will be able to make a difference on this front. “I truly believe that, not just for Inuit but for the Arctic. Our realities get lost in the machine, with bureaucrats,” she said, noting this appointment will shine a light on Nunavik and the Arctic reality in Canada. “We don’t want to just watch the train go by, we want to be part of the steering of this train. I think Indigenous issues as a whole, this has never been in the history books before. The southern part of the world did not get to learn the reality of the Indigenous world.”
Makivvik President Pita Aatami also sees it as an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about the history of Nunavik. “What is Kuujjuaq, how was it created? How was Kangiqsualujjuaq created? What did they go through these people? It’s important for people to understand that we don’t have a very rosy relationship with the non-natives since they came into the region many, many years ago. I want them to understand what they put us through.”
Mary Simon’s appointment to governor general meant that she had to step down from her role at Makivvik as Chief Negotiator of the Nunavik Government Self-Determination file. Pita says he received a letter from her confirming that before she was announced as Governor General Designate in early July. “What I’m more focused on is getting the exposure that we need so that people understand what we’re living through,” said Pita. “I also mentioned that we’re one of the highest tax paying citizens in this country and not a lot of Canadians are aware of this.”
Minnie Grey was proud to say that she had worked with Mary for many years. “I was her assistant in the 1980s when she was Makivvik President. I’ve been with her throughout most of her journey. I was part of her council members when she was representing Canada when she was ICC President. I’ve been involved in a lot of the committee work that she has done. It’s like this is just an amazing time for all of us, because it’s our accomplishment. Mary’s accomplishment is our accomplishment. Canada couldn’t have found a better representative for the Queen, it was mentioned, and I feel the same way.”
Minnie is a member of the advisory committee on the Order of Canada and was excited to be heading to Rideau Hall soon for a meeting. “I messaged Mary this morning saying, ‘I wonder if I’m allowed to bring you a little piece of pitsik?’ When I mentioned to people here, they said, ‘Oh, just put it in your purse. Somehow you’ll get it to her.’”
Mary has become Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada. She has already given us, as a nation, a sense of her personal style when she injected a moment of levity into her Installation Speech in explaining her Inuit name – Ningiukudluk. “Prime Minister,” she said looking straight at Justin Trudeau, “It means ‘bossy little old lady!’”
ICC Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough enjoyed this as well. “There’s always a bit of truth in humour,” she said, admitting that she is also a bossy little old lady. “But I have another line that I think is even more substantial, and that is that my bossiness leads to goodness!”
As for Elisapie Issac she said, “I loved her joke. It’s funny because all the Elisapies I know are really bossy, we were told as kids, ‘Queen Elisapie… Queen Elisapie’. I’m sure she kept it for Trudeau!”
Within a few weeks of the Installation Ceremony, Governor General Simon received Prime Minister Trudeau at Rideau Hall for one of her first official duties, which was to grant him a Dissolution of Parliament. A general election was called for September 20, 2021. Governor General Simon could have her hands full with the results of the election!