KUUJJUAQ, Que. — Gov. Gen. Mary Simon describes herself as someone who rarely gets excited, but this week is different.
"Yesterday I was thinking of my early childhood, when I was a young teenager especially, after we were at the camp on the George River. We would be coming here and we would be so excited we were almost squealing," she told a room of Inuit leaders Monday morning.
"I kind of felt like that yesterday."
She's not alone. People in Kuujjuaq have been anxiously awaiting her arrival for days, including her childhood best friend and sister-in-law, Louisa Berthe May.
“I was like, I wonder if I’ll be able to hug her,” May said. “So she came and hugged me, and wow, that was something.”
The pair embraced in front of Kuujjuaq Town Hall Monday, where Simon’s visit to Nunavik officially kicked off.
Before sitting down with town council, Simon spent time with the excited crowd gathered outside on an unusually warm spring day. There were hugs and selfies, and several people called out “Welcome home, Mary,” a far cry from the usual formalities of the viceregal office.
Here in Nunavik, the woman holding Canada’s highest office is known by her first name. Everyone seems to know her, and many call her a friend.
Local Inuit leaders laughed that there's no Inuktitut translation for her title "Your Excellency."
“She’s my role model,” said Kuujjuaq resident Jennifer Watkins.
“Mary’s been advocating for Inuit people our entire lives, so for her to have that moment to become Her Excellency, Governor General of Canada, was well deserved. And it means a lot for Inuit people across the Arctic.”
Simon is home in Nunavik for the first time since she became Canada's first Indigenous Governor General in July 2021.
At Makivik Corp., which represents Inuit in northern Quebec, Simon also took part in a discussion about progress on Inuit self-governance, an area in which she was a leader before her appointment last July.
Makivik president Pita Aatami said in his opening remarks that Simon's appointment has given exposure to the region and to Inuit that they never would have received.
But he also noted that negotiations with the Quebec government have nonetheless stalled.
"At this time, there's really no movement," Aatami said.
"Canada is on board and things are happening, but Quebec has talked about bringing an observer for the self-determination process … I said we don't need an observer, we need a negotiator that's going to work with us."
Simon told the group about her recent meeting with Premier François Legault in Quebec City where, she said, he committed to appoint a negotiator.
"He's on record saying that," she said.
Simon said she had some good discussions with Legault.
"I tried my best to speak French, I'm still not quite there yet, but he did say to the media that I need to improve my French," she said with a chuckle.
Simon and her husband Whit Fraser will end the day with a town hall discussion with students at a local school and a visit to the elders' home.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2022.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press