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Canada's first Inuk governor general, Mary Simon, sparks hope for new relationship

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon arrive for an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, has been named as Canada's next governor general — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The appointment of Canada's first Indigenous governor general is being met with near-universal praise

The director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC is calling it a transformational moment

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says Mary Simon will provide a steady hand in a role that requires a calm demeanour

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The appointment of Canada’s first Indigenous governor general is being met with near-universal praise, especially from those who have worked with her in the past.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC and knows her well. She says Simon will restore credibility to the governor general’s office, adding it is a refreshing, symbolic appointment as well as a big step for Canada.

“I think this is quite a transformational moment to have an Inuk woman, an Indigenous woman. I certainly know her and have worked with her in the past and think that she will just make an enormous contribution at this level.

“She comes from the sub-Arctic region, and she worked in the circumpolar region, and in terms of addressing and defending Canadian sovereignty and supporting the rights of indigenous people of the region. So she has an incredibly positive viewpoint that sort of few Canadians would be exposed to in relation to that.”

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Turpel-Lafond says Simon’s experience means she has an understanding of the impacts of climate change on the country and Indigenous people. Since she also comes from a region that is underrepresented, she’ll know the “importance of working together with people.”

She points out Simon herself attended a day school run by the federal government, so she brings a unique perspective on the issue to the vice-regal role.

“Just herself growing up with many, many challenges as an Indigenous leader and a woman, I think she has seen firsthand that and she will bring a lot of poise and sensitivity to those issues at a time when we particularly need that support,” Turpel-Lafond says.

“If you spend any time with her, you realize that she’s had to her entire life, push back against, racism, misogyny, silencing, and she hasn’t yelled and screamed her way through. She’s just really stood on her own thoughtfulness and her calm and her ability to be forthright and present, reasonable and important arguments and positions to be heard. And I think that that history is one that will serve her very well on this role.”

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First Nations, Inuit, and Métis leaders applauding appointment

Pita Aatami, president of the Makivik Corp., which Simon led in the 1970s, says a collective thrill was felt among many Inuit and Indigenous people across Canada when the first words Simon uttered as governor-general designate was in her native language of Inuktitut.

Atami says having an Indigenous person as the Crown’s representative in Canada comes at an important time in the country’s history when it comes to working toward reconciliation.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says he hopes Simon will be able to empathize with those feeling fresh loss and pain after a difficult year, including the pandemic, wildfires in British Columbia, and the discovery of unmarked burial sites at residential schools.

Outgoing Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says Simon will represent both Inuit in the North and all Canadians in her new role and says he believes her experience in many leadership and diplomatic roles makes her an ideal choice for the job.

Sen. Yvonne Boyer, a Métis lawyer and former nurse, says she was “thrilled” to learn of Simon’s appointment, not only because she is Inuk, but because of her many years of experience as a leader and representative of Canada on the world stage.