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Mary Simon has been a hunter, cook, interpreter, radio journalist, constitutional negotiator, foreign ambassador and politician.

At 60, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization, is taking on a new challenge, travelling the country as part of a federal commission seeking ways to improve mental-illness services.

Mental-health programs are particularly scarce in aboriginal communities despite widespread problems of suicide and substance abuse. Ms. Simon will likely be tasked with ensuring aboriginals benefit from any new approaches to mental health inspired by the commission.

"Our young people are in crisis," she said, noting that Inuit with mental-health issues rarely have access to doctors and counsellors. "When somebody tries to commit suicide, if they haven't succeeded, they'll end up in the nursing station in one of the communities for two or three days and then they send them home. And that's the last kind of help they get."

On its own, Ms. Simon's career is remarkable. The fact that she grew up in this remote Arctic community, where even today most Inuit youth who go south struggle and quickly return home, makes it even more so.

Talking over coffee at her father's kitchen table, Ms. Simon credited her success to a strong, loving family. Her father, Bob May, came to the North as a Hudson's Bay fur trader. He says he was the first white man to defy the company's ban on marrying an Inuit woman, which his employer then grudgingly allowed. His focus on hard work and education clearly had a major influence on his eight children.

But it was Ms. Simon's Inuit grandmother, Jeannie Angnatuk, who inspired one of Ms. Simon's most remarkable accomplishments.

"Inuit history is all oral," Ms. Simon explained. "Anything historical was passed on. My grandmother - even though there was nothing written down - she knew there were Inuit around the world. She knew where Greenland was. She knew there were Inuit in Alaska and she knew [of]the Inuit in Russia. She had all this information, and yet there's nothing documented in her era."

Ms. Simon recalled how here grandmother was fascinated by the family's short-wave radio, forever tuning the dial through the crackling static in the hope of catching a few minutes of music or sound from the Inuit of Greenland on the BBC.

"We would be playing outside and she'd call us and she'd say: 'Come, come and listen to your faraway relatives! Listen to their singing!' She'd make us sit there and listen and I remember it was so beautiful," she said. Her grandmother told the children that some day the Inuit would come together. "That's how I learned about circumpolar, international stuff," Ms. Simon said. As an adult, she was able to follow through on her grandmother's dream.

Ms. Simon was a key player in the creation of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in July, 1977, which brought the Inuit of Canada, Alaska and Greenland together for the first time.

"It was an unbelievable event. I was so happy to be part of it," said Ms. Simon, as the emotions of that meeting in Barrow, Alaska, suddenly rushed back. "I don't even know how to describe it. There was so much happiness. We were all acting like we hadn't seen our family for years and years and years, and I suppose that's true, in a way."

The group of international Inuit agreed to meet every four years, but each time an empty seat would be left at the table. The missing Inuit were the people of Siberia, who were banned by Soviet Russia from attending.

Elected president of the ICC in 1986, Ms. Simon twice led delegations made up of fellow Inuit from Alaska and Greenland to the Soviet Union to lobby Moscow. After three years of campaigning, Russia's Inuit were finally allowed to meet their polar cousins in Alaska in 1989.

Even though Ms. Simon's father was white, Mr. May learned Inuktitut and worked with his wife Nancy to provide their eight children with a traditional Inuit upbringing. Now 89, Mr. May can vividly recall those years living entirely off the land, hunting to feed his family and the dogs who pulled his sled.

"Most of my time was spent trying to get enough meat for the damn dogs," he said. "We had a thermometer in camp that registered 60 below, and the mercury used to disappear in that. You couldn't find it unless you warmed it up."

Once Ms. Simon had completed Grade 6, she no longer qualified for further schooling in Kuujjuaq because her father wasn't Inuit. Mr. May's parents had moved from Manitoba to Colorado, so he sporadically brought his family to attend school in the United States. In those years, they would often return to Kuujjuaq in April and finish the school year through correspondence courses. Other years they were home-schooled in Kuujjuaq by Ms. Simon's parents.

After completing high school, Ms. Simon stayed in the North for a few years working as an interpreter. At 22, she moved to Montreal as an announcer and producer for the CBC's Northern Service.

Having grown up in Kuujjuaq, a friendly village where virtually everyone smiles and says hi, Ms. Simon recalled having a hard time adjusting to life in a big city with two young children of her own.

"When I first got to Montreal, I'd be walking down the street and I'd be looking at people, trying to say hello. People wouldn't look at me. I even said to my mother, 'I don't know what's wrong with people down here. They don't smile. They must be very unhappy.' It bothered me a lot. It made me homesick."

Although she admits to being a very shy person, Ms. Simon has held her own in some of the most heated talks in Canadian history. She was a negotiator in the constitutional talks of 1982, as well as those that ultimately led to the failed Charlottetown accord in 1992. She recalled making her case for aboriginal rights directly to then-prime-minister Brian Mulroney in a private room, while Ontario's then-premier, Bob Rae, sat at a computer fussing over the exact wording at issue.

The frantic pace of her career took its toll. At 40, Ms. Simon said she developed a mental illness that included feelings of burnout, depression and panic.

Over time, she has been able to move beyond those feelings. Her personal experience with mental illness made her eager to take part in the new commission. It also allows her to better understand one of the biggest problems in Canada's Inuit communities. With virtually no counselling or medical treatment available to Inuit battling depression, she said, little is done to rein in the North's alarmingly high suicide rates.

Extreme illnesses such as schizophrenia often go untreated, reinforcing social stigmas in the communities that such people are "possessed" rather than in need of medical care, she said.

Bringing mental-health services to the North continues to drive her work on behalf of the Inuit. She also urges Inuit parents to become more involved in ensuring their children finish school.

Her hope is that eventually there will be no need to spend extra money in incentives to lure non-Inuit to fill the existing Northern positions, from teachers to plumbers.

"Inuit have always lived up here. I don't think assimilation is the answer," she said. With the recent focus on the melting Arctic Ocean and Russia's controversial claims to the North Pole, Ms. Simon said, Canada needs strong Inuit communities.

"The presence of Inuit in the Arctic is absolutely important to Canada," she said. "Because the best way to assert sovereignty is to be present, and we've been in the Arctic for thousands of years."

Her early years on the radio, followed by her many roles representing Canada's Inuit, have made her a celebrity in the North of Canada - and other polar nations.

"In Greenland itself, she's incredibly well-respected. She's known by everybody," said Marianne Stenbaek, a broadcaster with Radio Greenland who is also a professor at McGill University and a close friend of Ms. Simon's.

That international reputation was developed through Ms. Simon's work at the ICC, but also through her time as Canada's ambassador for circumpolar affairs and also ambassador to Denmark.

Ms. Stenbaek, who has covered the major meetings of the world's Inuit, puts it this way: "Her name stands in the circumpolar world for honesty and integrity, devotion and dedication to her people and to her family."

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