OTTAWA — Mary Simon, Canada’s 30th governor general, has a favourite memory from her childhood in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec: she is inside her family’s tent near the George River, lying on a bed of spruce boughs and caribou skins, taking in the sounds of birds and the crunch of snow beneath her dog team’s feet.
Simon shared the recollection during her swearing in ceremony in Ottawa on Monday, where she officially became the first Inuk to hold the viceregal post.
Listening to the story from her seat within the Senate chamber was RoseAnne Archibald, the recently elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Earlier in the day, Simon’s historic installation was also honoured with a poem written by Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by the Cree name Sky Dancer.
The trio are the first Indigenous women to occupy each of their positions, making Monday’s events — devoid of the pre-pandemic pageantry that usually accompanies such appointments — momentous all the same.
"My (journey) to these chambers began very far from here," Simon told the scaled-back group of attendees gathered in the Senate of Canada building. "I was born Mary Jeannie May ... my name is Ningiukudluk and, Prime Minister, it means ‘bossy little old lady.’"
Ningiukudluk is also the name of Halfe’s poem, a piece the poet laureate crafted after researching the accomplishments of her subject.
But Simon’s long list of achievements — among them, helping to negotiate the first land claims agreement in Canada, becoming the country’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs and serving two terms as the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — won’t be found in Halfe’s poem.
Instead, Halfe, who was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School in Alberta, decided to focus on Simon’s upbringing by an Inuk mother and fur trader father.
"Being a mother, we love our children and our grandchildren. And so we do what we would intuitively do, which is to love them and wish for ... the spirits to guide her as she travels onward in this world," Halfe told the Star. "Her father would also leave a message of not only her Inuit background, but how he could contribute to her hunting and gathering and her knowledge of the land and her people."
The poem centres on Simon’s appreciation and navigation of the Arctic terrain, learning about reconciliation and resilience in the process.
"It’s really wonderful that our matriarchal society is being honoured," said Halfe, reflecting on a time where Indigenous women are ascending to new heights in professional and political spheres.
"Right from the cradle, people learn from their mother’s knee about life and about spirituality and about language. And women are incredible knowledge keepers of culture and tradition. They’re incredible survivors."
Archibald expressed similar sentiments during her national chief victory speech, which she delivered in the same week Simon’s appointment was first announced earlier this month.
"Today is a victory, and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken," she said. "I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made it crack. You are an inspiration to me."
Those sentiments could be felt during Monday’s ceremony, which featured the lighting of a qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp typically tended by women. Performances included a song called "Arnaq" from Inuk singer-songwriter Elisapie, honouring the strength of womankind.
And as a 21-gun salute began to fire, the governor general’s flag was temporarily raised atop the Peace Tower at full mast — a striking change from the flags flying at half mast across the nation’s capital after the recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools.
While Halfe has yet to recite her poem in public, she hopes she will soon have the opportunity to do so. She said if she were to see Simon today, she would likely be moved to tears.
"I’m so proud of our generation of women that are moving forward and cutting the path for the rest of us," she said. "I’m so incredibly proud and awed by her accomplishments."
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel