As a young girl in Nunavik in the 1950s, Mary Simon and her friends chatted happily on their way to elementary school, just like the other children. But, unlike most of the other children, they fell silent when they reached the playground.
Inuit languages were banned at the federal day school in Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, and Simon remembers being punished “several times” for speaking Inuktitut rather than English in class.
“From first to sixth grade, we weren’t allowed to speak our language on the school grounds or in the classroom or at school at all,” she said during an interview.
More than six decades later, as Governor General of Canada, Simon delivered the Speech from the Throne not only in the country’s official languages, English and French, but in Inuktitut, a groundbreaking moment in the history of Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her to the position last year and she moved to Rideau Hall, Ottawa’s grand official residence. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, she not only plays a key ceremonial role but also serves as a non-political figurehead for the country.
The 95-year-old Queen recently tested positive for COVID-19 and Simon said all Canadians “wish her well”.
“I know that all Canadians join me in wishing Her Majesty good health and a speedy recovery from her recent illness,” she said.
Simon also contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, which she said she only had for a week with mild symptoms, thanks to her vaccination.
“I am fully vaccinated and I encourage everyone to get vaccinated. I think getting vaccinated is the best way to fight COVID so we can get back to a more normal life,” she said.
Although it rises above party politics, the politics of vaccinations came to its doorstep this month after the so-called Freedom Convoy arrived in Ottawa and stayed there.
Governor General says protests have ‘changed’ Canada, need to work on respect for each other. #CDNpoli
One of the groups organizing the protest, Canada Unity, released a “memorandum of understanding” calling on the Senate and Governor General to rescind all levels of government and revoke COVID-19 restrictions.
Her office was also inundated with emails from people trying to register a vote of no confidence in the government with her, after they mistakenly believed her office had the power to unilaterally dissolve parliament.
Rideau Hall was forced to post a message on Twitter to counter “misinformation” on social media encouraging Canadians to vote of no confidence.
The statement pointed out that “no such registry or process exists.”
Simon said she did not involve herself in the politics of the protests, or meet with any of the protesters, although she was kept closely informed of the tumultuous events on her doorstep.
The Governor General said Canada “has been changed by this momentous event.”
She said she was “very saddened by some of the events that happened, especially some of the things that happened at the National War Memorial”, in an apparent reference to a video showing someone dancing on the tomb of the unknown soldier.
She said Canadians are “frustrated and upset because we had to live a very different life for over two years.”
Although the protest started over vaccinations, it “became much bigger than that,” she said.
The protesters were not a homogeneous mass, she said, but included many groupings, including people “opposed to vaccines and … other people who want to overthrow the government”.
“Toppling the government in this way is not something Canada does,” she said.
She is now focused on healing the fault lines and divisions that have emerged in Canada, which includes speaking to the wide range of people involved in the protests.
Throughout her career, including as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council, Simon has earned a reputation for building bridges between people with very opposing points of view.
Although she says she is personally in favor of “following the science” and getting vaccinated, she refrains from judging the protesters.
“I don’t think anyone is particularly wrong, but there is a very strong difference of opinion about what is going on,” the former diplomat remarked.
She said the country must consider “bringing Canadians together to discuss how we can work and come together as a nation and look to the future.”
“I am a bridge between Canadians of different experiences,” she said. “Encouraging different viewpoints has been central to my work, not just here at Rideau Hall, but throughout my life,” she said.
She said the fact that Canadians have a diversity of experiences and opinions makes the country stronger “when we respect each other.”
But respect “is something we really need to work on in the coming months and probably the next few years,” she said.
Recently, the Governor General surprised members of the public by telephoning them directly with a “Call for Kindness,” a CBC Ottawa initiative she loved so much she decided to pursue herself.
With these appeals, she hopes to inspire Canadians to “ajuinnata,” an Inuktitut concept meaning a promise, a vow to never give up.
“I think kindness should be a way of life. I think it’s really important – even when you disagree with someone – you still have to be nice,” she said.
The Governor General is hopeful that the fractures that have appeared in Canadian society in recent weeks can be healed.
For anyone who disagrees, she offers some advice, honed by decades of diplomacy.
“You don’t have to be obnoxious about a disagreement,” she said. “If you walk away from it, you can wait for a later date to have another discussion and maybe this one will be more fruitful.”
A key part of building a more inclusive society, she said, is enabling people to speak in their native language and “fostering respect” for them.
Simon, the first Indigenous Governor General, recalled a time when, because Inuit names were considered difficult to pronounce, Inuit were also assigned a number.
“That’s how we were able to identify the Inuit in the Arctic,” she says.
Only now are Canadians learning of the deliberate attempts to erase Indigenous languages in residential schools, she said.
They also “learn the truth about these children who were torn from their homes and thrown into very unknown worlds where threats of violence were used to erase their identity.”
She said Canadians everywhere “share the grief and pain of First Nations people” following the discovery of unmarked graves of children attending residential schools.
“It seems the country has woken up to a reality that perhaps Canadians were unaware of,” she said.
Ensuring that today’s Indigenous peoples don’t have to revert to French or English to access basic services in their communities is “really important,” she said.
Simon is fully bilingual in Inuktitut and English, but had to learn French to be able to speak as Governor General in both official languages and speak to French-speaking Canadians in their native language.
To do this, the 74-year-old grandmother takes French lessons, where she practices reading and conversation and studies the structure of the language every week.
“I have a tutor and I take lessons three times a week…for about an hour and a half,” she said. “My guardian says I’m fine.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 26, 2022.