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northern development

Mary Simon, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) poses for a portrait at her office in Ottawa, April 18, 2012.

The woman who heads the organization representing Canada's 55,000 Inuit will let someone else lead her people into their future.

Mary Simon's work on behalf of the aboriginal people of the North spans more than four decades. She was one of the negotiators for the Inuit when Canada's Constitution was being crafted.

In her six years as leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, she has witnessed the settling of the last major Inuit land claim, she has heard an apology from the Prime Minister for the treatment of the aboriginal children at residential schools, and she has seen increasing recognition of the Inuit title to the vast resources of Canada's North.

"There has never been a day when I didn't like my job," she said during a recent interview in her office in downtown Ottawa.

But Ms. Simon, 64, has told The Globe and Mail she will not seek a third term when the ITK, which represents Inuit in 53 communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Northern Quebec and Labrador, holds its presidential election in early June.

As she ponders the road forward, Ms. Simon knows much needs to be done.

The progress made by the Inuit over the six years she has led their national organization has been "three steps forward and two steps back," Ms. Simon said.

Deeply entrenched social problems remain. The incidence of diabetes, obesity and heart disease among the Inuit is unacceptably high. Suicide rates are 11 times the national average. And just 25 per cent of Inuit teenagers graduate from high school.

Since the 1970s, when she was a producer and announcer with CBC's Northern Service, Ms. Simon has been president of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Canada's ambassador for circumpolar affairs, and chair of the Arctic Council.

Now a great-grandmother, Ms. Simon is not ready to step out of public life altogether. She will continue to chair a national committee created to revitalize learning for Inuit students in a way that is grounded in their language and culture. She also wants to help de-stigmatize mental health issues.

And maybe she will get to spend more time canoeing with her husband near her childhood home in Ungava Bay, where Quebec meets the Hudson Strait.

Ms. Simon, the second oldest in a family of eight children, was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que., a tiny community on the Ungava coast. Her father was an Englishman and a fur trader who had come to the Arctic when he was 19 and never left. Her mother, an Inuk, spoke no English.

When she was young, Ms. Simon's family moved southwest to Kuujjuaq, a larger village that was the site of the region's only federal day school.

"If we weren't in school, we were out on the land," Ms. Simon said. "In those days, you only travelled by dog team. There were no snow machines. It was very typical Inuit style," she said.

Many nights were spent in log cabins her father built or in tents.

"We used to take all the spruce boughs from the trees, all of the lower branches, put it all on the floor in the tent so there was no snow, and it was warm because we had a wood stove. It was beautiful," Ms. Simon said.

The adjustment from that sort of life to the present over such a short period of time has not been easy for many Inuit. The myriad social issues they now face were created, in large part, by "the trauma that people experienced through the residential schools era, the trauma that people experienced from being moved into communities from being a nomadic people," Ms. Simon said.

Finding ways to ease that transition has been a preoccupation of the ITK and its president. It is a job that was made more difficult, Ms. Simon said, by the cuts in the recent federal budget that eliminated the organization's health programs.

The relationship between the Inuit and the rest of Canada has always had positives and negatives, Ms. Simon said. And that makes the job of her successor crucial to the preservation of the Inuit and their life in the North. It's clear, she said, that "we can't just depend on governments to make the right choices for our people."

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