Canada's new governor general, Inuit advocate Mary Simon

·3-min read

Mary Simon, who on Monday became the first indigenous person to be named governor general of Canada, has fought to preserve her people's way of life, opposing oil drilling in the Arctic, supporting seal hunting and defending Inuit culture.

As Canada's head of state and Queen Elizabeth II's representative in the Commonwealth nation, Simon said her appointment marks "an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation."

It followed the painful discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at church-run residential schools funded by the government to forcibly assimilate Canada's indigenous population.

More than 4,000 students died of disease and neglect, while others have recounted physical and sexual abuses by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

Simon, wearing a seal skin vest, was among several indigenous leaders present in parliament in 2008 for the government's official apology for those abuses.

"I'm filled with optimism that this action by the government of Canada and the generosity of the words chosen to convey this apology will help us all mark the end of this dark period in our collective history as a nation," she said then.

But, she added, "let us not be lulled into an impression that when the sun rises tomorrow morning, the pain and scars will miraculously be gone. They won't."

- 'Colonial perceptions' -

"I am honored, humble and ready to be Canada's first indigenous governor general," said Simon, in her first official speech Monday at a ceremony in Ottawa's Senate.

"I will strive to build bridges across the diverse backgrounds and cultures that reflect our great country's uniqueness and promise," she added.

Born in 1947 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, a hamlet on the east coast of Ungava Bay, Simon attended a day school similar to the indigenous residential schools, before landing her first job as a radio host for public broadcaster CBC.

From the 1980s, she became actively involved in defending Inuit rights and their Arctic lands. As president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), she denounced oil and gas drilling and other sources of pollution in the far north.

She has also promoted Inuit culture, including applauding her predecessor for eating seal meat during an official Arctic trip in solidarity with Inuit hunters fighting an EU ban on the sale of seal products.

"The seal ban," she said at the time, "was based on colonial perceptions of our sealing practices."

Simon brought that same zeal to Washington to fight against adding polar bears on the endangered species list, saying the hunting restriction would hurt the livelihood of many Inuit. Canada is home to about half of the world's polar bear population.

"The polar bear is a very important subsistence, economic, cultural, conservation, management, and rights concern for Inuit in Canada," she said.

Her appointment as governor general was widely praised, but her lack of fluency in French irked some, notably in Quebec.

Simon said she was committed to taking French lessons to "conduct the business of the governor general in both of Canada's official languages, as well as Inuktitut, (her native language and) one of many indigenous languages spoken across the country."

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