The ringing of a long-awaited call from the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General, connected to the warm voice of Her Excellency, the Right Honorable Mary May Simon, immediately thaws out on a freezing January afternoon in Ottawa. Sworn in on July 21, 2021, Simon is Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General and the 30and having been sworn since 1867.
When asked what has been his favorite part of life at Rideau Hall to date, Simon chooses motivation to learn about the history and work of those who have occupied his same office and the challenges ahead. “I am always inspired by the difficult times. I don’t see them as a negative thing but rather as a challenge that I have to overcome.
With an impressive list of goals in place, Simon has identified reconciliation as a key priority. Calling reconciliation not a project but truly a way of life, she believes that the level of mutual learning, understanding and respect needed between cultures is not yet where it should be in our country today.
Highlighting the recent discovery of other unmarked graves of Aboriginal children at a former residential school in British Columbia, Simon believes that media coverage has confirmed to Canadians the reality of this horrific part of Canadian history and that, for for reconciliation to happen, the wrongs of the past must be addressed, Indigenous peoples must have the space and support to heal, and we, as a nation, must heal together.
Simon insists that education is another vital aspect of reconciliation and building a better future. This involves integrating the real history of Canada into the curriculum, mutual education and creating a better understanding of what Canada is and has been. “I also want Canadians to know that reconciliation is not just about Indigenous peoples. It’s really about building relationships between people, cultures and society and we have to do it together. Reconciliation is not an Indigenous issue, it is a Canadian issue.
Hearing the many stories of Canadians who have suffered during the pandemic reaffirmed Simon’s commitment to improving Canada’s mental health care system. “I always say that when I listen to people talk, people experience a lack of support and I really believe that we need to increase our capacity to provide support to people in distress.” Impressive that it is very difficult for people to overcome mental health problems without support, Simon considers that the current waiting lists are far too long and that more resources are needed to meet the needs in mental health of Canadians. Encouraging those in distress to seek help, Simon hopes to understand in the future that “mental well-being is very much linked to your ability to be a healthy person”.
Aware of the astronomical suicide rates among northern children and sharing her own experience of a niece’s dark days of mental health struggles while living in Ottawa and receiving care from CHEO, Simon is clear that children have also need appropriate support and follow-up. to keep them safe while they try to feel better.
For Simon, taking care of herself means taking the time to stay in touch with the big family she adores. Nana to 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, ‘baby’ being her all-time favorite smell, Simon hopes they will remember her as ‘the kindest, wisest woman’.
Her own treasured childhood memory took place at the age of 15 during a year of living on the land with her family, about 90 miles up the George River from her home. With limited access to a winter dog team, canoe or small plane, his father built a cabin, hunted and fished. When Christmas arrived, Simon recalls that she and her six siblings felt a little blue until they were alerted to the incoming buzz of a small plane. A drop of pre-arranged gifts, sweets and oranges led to the unforgettable excitement that can still be heard in Simon’s retelling of the story today.
Calling her Inuk mother, her father, who moved to the Arctic for work, and her grandmother her greatest heroes, Simon credits the way she was raised and taught that she could live in two worlds, the strength and ability to do its job, and act as a bridge. “I was very lucky to have been able to learn early on that you don’t have to give up your culture or your identity to be able to live in a different culture.”
This article was updated at 4:42 p.m. to restore the original version.