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Mary May Simon Canada’s first Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs

by Sierra Bacquie | November 11, 2005

Mary May Simon, Canada’s first Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, and the first Inuk person to hold an ambassadorial position, was one of eight children born to a couple in Kangiqsualujjuaq (George River – the easternmost village of Nunavik), in Quebec’s far north.

“My mother was an Inuk and my father was white,” says Simon, “so we sort of lived in both cultures. But I grew up among my mother’s people, in the Arctic.”

Simon’s identity as an Inuk woman was shaped in part by her maternal grandmother, who taught Mary and her siblings a lot about the Inuit traditions and culture. It was further shaped by the particular experiences that Simon and her family faced.

“In those days, even though the Indian Act wasn’t supposed to apply to Inuit women, it was applied arbitrarily in some situations,” says Simon. As a result, because Simon’s mother married a white man (“which was like an Indian woman losing her status”), Mary and her siblings were prevented from attending the regular school system after grade six.

All eight children continued their education through correspondence courses, following the Alberta curriculum, with their father acting as teacher.

“These kinds of things, I think, if you don’t let them get to you, they strengthen your character,” reflects Mary Simon, who, like her siblings, completed her secondary school education at home.

Simon began her professional life as an announcer and producer of Inuktitut radio and television programs for the CBC Northern Service. She was one of a group of like-minded individuals who saw a need for change in the North, and set about making change happen. The group’s members supported each other, learned together the mechanisms by which change is effected, and pushed for reforms.

Mary Simon left the CBC to serve as vice president and then president of the Makivik Corporation. This organization was established in 1978, to:

  • Receive and administer compensation monies on behalf of the Inuit of Northern Quebec
  • Oversee the proper implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Simon oversaw the development and adoption of Canada’s Comprehensive Arctic Policy, which outlines future development and management of the Arctic in a way that is “compatible with Inuit values, priorities and aspirations.”

From there, Mary Simon built an impressive list of accomplishments, all carried out with a commitment to advocating on behalf of the native people of Canada’s North. She served first as Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, and later as Ambassador to Denmark.

In June 2005, Mary May Simon received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Trent University in recognition of her hard work and achievements.

“Leadership is an attribute sought by so many, yet attained by far too few,” said Trent professor Shelagh Grant at the ceremony to bestow the honour. “The test of a true leader lies not in title or power, but in the ability to place the needs of others ahead of one’s own – and to convince others to do the same.”

These days, Mary Simon serves as a special advisor to the Labrador Inuit Association, helping to foster understanding of and support for the people’s land claim among Ottawa’s lawmakers and bureaucrats.

Simon is also the founding chair of the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation. The foundation supports children and youth of the Artic reach their full academic, social and economic potential.

“During my work over the past 25 years, I’ve come to realize that issues affecting children and youth get a lot of lip service, but not a lot of attention,” says Simon. “It’s been a very difficult struggle to get the foundation going, because there are not a lot of resources available to do the work. (The foundation receives a small amount of government funding.)

Mary Simon has received countless awards, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, in 1996, for her work on environmental issues and for raising awareness of, and promoting solutions to, the challenges facing the Inuit of Greenland, Alaska, Russia and Canada. She is a member of the Order of Canada, the National Order of Quebec, and the Gold Order of Greenland.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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