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'A very gentle soul': Inuit react to Canada's first Inuk Governor General

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Sitting with her four-year-old daughter on her lap, Crystal Martin-Lepenskie had tears in her eyes as she watched Mary Simon become Canada's 30th Governor General.

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Sitting with her four-year-old daughter on her lap, Crystal Martin-Lepenskie had tears in her eyes as she watched Mary Simon become Canada's 30th Governor General.

Simon, an Inuk born in Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec, took her oaths Monday morning at a ceremony in the Senate chamber in Ottawa. She is the first Indigenous and Inuk person in the role.

"I feel like this is true reconciliation, witnessing an Inuk who was born and raised traditionally, who experienced colonization, but who has also been very active throughout her career ... I couldn't believe I was witnessing that," Martin-Lepenskie saidin an interview.

Martin-Lepenskie, originally from Sanirajak, Nunavut, and a former National Inuit Youth Council president, watched the ceremony from her home in Ontario.  

"It proves that though every power was made to deplete our people, our culture and traditions, we remained resilient," she said. 

Martin-Lepenskie said she believes Simon's appointment is only one step toward healing and reconciliation for Inuit and other Indigenous people in Canada.

"Seeing Indigenous peoples in these types of roles, I think is really the way to create change that is inclusive and diverse to our country," she said. 

"How are we going to make changes if we're not in those types of roles? We have to experience discomfort in order to find what works better."

A viewing party for Simon's swearing-in also took place in Kuujjuaq, the northern Quebec community of about 2,700 people where she grew up. 

But others question the timing of Simon's appointment and what progress, if any, it will bring for Indigenous people in Canada.

In a Facebook post shared with The Canadian Press, Napatsi Folger, who is from Iqaluit, said although she celebrates Indigenous people succeeding and doesn't doubt Simon is a good choice, her appointment comes at a difficult time.

"This move feels so much like posturing and like a disingenuous move to distract us from the important feelings of anger we still need to focus on," she wrote.

Folger said she believes Canada is not doing enough for Indigenous people, citing the federal government's promises on things like clean drinking water, health care and justice. 

"How dare you try to pull the wool over our eyes using our own people as tokens of light while doing nothing to help manage the ongoing crises in our actual communities," she wrote.

Paul Quassa, a former Nunavut premier and now the territory's speaker of the legislative assembly, negotiated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement alongside Mary Simon in the 1980s. 

"As I watched this morning, I thought of all the Inuit that worked with her. All her community members, all the Inuit who have survived for thousands of years," he said in an interview.

Quassa described Simon as a skilled negotiator with a "magic touch."

"She has a very gentle soul."

He said he hopes Simon's appointment will be an opportunity for Canadians to learn about the first languages of Indigenous people throughout the country, including Simon's and Quassa's mother tongue of Inuktitut.

"They were the first languages before we were colonized here in Canada and I think it is high time that Canada and the federal government recognizes that," said Quassa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press