KUUJJUAQ, Que. — The usual excitement over the end of the school year in Nunavik is reaching a new level, as hundreds of students get ready to present special projects to the country's first Indigenous Governor General.
Mary Simon's tour of the Nunavik region of northern Quebec this week marks the first time she's been on an official visit to the area where she grew up since she was appointed to the viceregal office in July 2021.
The five-day trip is scheduled to include visits to four schools as well as youth groups, highlighting one of the priorities Simon has set while in office of promoting education and physical and mental health for youth.
Students and teachers have been preparing arts projects and anticipating the visit for more than a month.
"The fact that students will be able to interact with her in their own first language is something very special," said Jade Duchesneau Bernier, the communications coordinator for Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board of Nunavik.
While Simon's inability to speak French has been controversial — sparking hundreds of complaints and an investigation by the official languages watchdog — her fluency in Inuktitut is an asset for this particular tour.
"It's very rare that we have government officials who know what the North is about, who the Inuit are, what their culture is, what their language is," Duchesneau Bernier said.
Simon's visit to the northernmost part of the province comes just days after she met with Quebec Premier François Legault, who told reporters she still has "more work to do" to improve her French language skills.
Simon has said she is committed to learning French on the job but was denied the chance to do so while attending a federal day school in her youth.
She was born near Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit village in Nunavik, in 1947. Her mother Nany May, whose family surname was Angnatuk-Askew, was Inuk and her father, Bob Mardon May, had moved to the Arctic to work for the Hudson's Bay Co. and stayed.
She and her siblings went to federal day school in Kuujjuaq, then called Fort Chimo. She was home-schooled by her father after Grade 6.
Simon, 74, has been a leader in the North for the last four decades. She served as president of Makivik Corp., the Nunavik land-claim body, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization.
She was Canada’s first ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and also served as the country’s ambassador to Denmark.
On her first day in Kuujjuaq, Simon is set to meet representatives from Makivik, Kativik Regional Government, Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services and the school board before sitting down with the mayor and council.
The itinerary also includes organizations that focus on holistic methods of treating trauma and addiction in a region that is grappling with the effects of colonialism, with high rates of alcohol abuse, suicide risk and social inequities.
The Isuarsivik Recovery Centre, for example, focuses on blending traditional Inuit values and modern practices. It offers six-week in-patient programs for groups of nine men or women, helping them heal from trauma and overcome addictions, at no cost.
Simon will visit a new centre, set to open next year, that will include an in-patient family program. That approach was recognized in March with an Arctic Inspiration Prize worth $1 million.
Simon plans to speak with Inuit leaders and local officials, meet with elders and take part in cultural celebrations throughout the week.
Her husband, author and journalist Whit Fraser, 79, is also part of the official trip in his role as the viceregal consort of Canada.
Simon is well known for her role in negotiating and implementing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement between the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec, the provincial government and Hydro-Quebec in 1975.
Considered the first modern treaty in Canada, the deal affirmed Inuit and Cree hunting and trapping rights in the area and established $225 million in compensation over 20 years in exchange for construction of hydroelectric dams.
During her time as Circumpolar Affairs ambassador, she led negotiations to create what is now known as the eight-country Arctic Council. She also worked a producer and announcer for CBC North.
In 2016, she served as special adviser on the Arctic to Carolyn Bennett, who was then Indigenous and northern affairs minister, and proposed Indigenous-protected areas in the North.
Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., said in a statement when Simon was named as Canada's next Governor General: “In Nunavik, we all know our new Governor General as Mary."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2022
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press