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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon arrive for an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, is the first Indigenous person to serve as Canada's governor general.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada has a sovereignty problem.

Ottawa does not have a terribly strong claim to much of what appears as “Canada” on the top third of the map of the country. International law tends to view sovereignty on a “use it or lose it” basis, and, compared with other Arctic countries, Canada doesn’t use it much – we don’t have cities or bases or industries above the Arctic Circle. This has long been a problem, but as climate change opens the far north to shipping and resource exploitation, Canada is being watched from abroad.

Nobody is more central to this sovereignty problem than Mary Simon. She hasn’t just devoted her life to understanding it, explaining it, and devising and realizing an ingenious set of solutions to it. She is also, in a number of ways, the issue’s very embodiment.

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When she was a small child living with her family in tents near Ungava Bay in the early 1950s, some of Ms. Simon’s fellow northern Quebec Inuit were loaded onto a ship by the federal government and sent, against their will, to empty places hundreds of kilometres to the north. It was a desperate Cold War effort to assert Canada’s sovereignty by populating the islands of the High Arctic. Many did not survive the experiment.

The lesson Ms. Simon took from this experience, as she told the Standing Committee on National Defence in 2009, was that Canada depends on the Inuit for its very existence as a country. The 65,000 Inuit in Canada comprise the majority of the population of the north. Their status as active citizens represents pretty much all of Canada’s claim to 35 per cent of its land mass; that claim is only legitimate if the Inuit have control of the land.

From this observation, she developed a very influential way of understanding Canadian sovereignty – one that sees indigenous sovereignty and national sovereignty as mutually reinforcing, intertwined necessities.

As she once wrote: “For Canada to assert its sovereignty legitimately in the Arctic, it must also ensure that Inuit are treated as all other Canadians are … with the same standard of education, health care and infrastructure … the process for asserting Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic involves establishing constructive partnerships with Inuit.” It is no exaggeration to say that her theory of sovereignty has changed the structure of Ottawa’s relationship with the North.

Ms. Simon is about to embody the sovereignty problem in an even more literal way – by becoming Canada’s de facto sovereign. When she formally becomes governor-general, and thus the very face of the Canadian state, she will be entering hall-of-mirrors territory.

As a symbolic not-quite-head-of-state, she will personify these intertwined Canadian and Indigenous sovereignties. But as a necessarily voiceless representative of an overseas sovereign whose outdated role leaves Canada not fully independent, she is plunging herself, as an Inuk and a Canadian, into the centre of Canada’s other sovereignty problem.

In a way, this is a culmination of a lifetime spent representing both the Canadian state and the Inuit people. Ms. Simon has served twice as a Canadian ambassador (to Denmark and to international Arctic organizations), and as a prominent figure in the public service. She has also spent six years as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, representing all of Canada’s Inuit. Much of her career has been spent tackling Indigenous and Canadian sovereignty problems: she was one of several figures who helped draft Section 35 of the Canadian constitution, which recognizes Indigenous treaties as constitutional documents, and she played a central role in creating Nunavut, the world’s first Indigenous self-governed territory. (This status, and the Indigenous resource rights tied to it, makes it key to Canadian sovereignty claims.)

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Ms. Simon’s vision of mutually dependent and shared sovereignties is not the only possible vision. Other Indigenous leaders speak of parallel, “separate but equal” sovereignties. Hers is more of a judo move – it recognizes Canada’s deep dependence on the Inuit, and uses this to extract obligations from the Canadian state.

As she once said in an interview with Globe and Mail readers: “Inuit believe that the Arctic can and should be governed and developed in constructive and creative ways that are, at the same time, good for Inuit who live there, good for Canada, and consistent with a more secure and co-operative international order.”

She has repeatedly noted that this is far from symmetrical: The lives of most Inuit remain far more deprived and dependent than those of other Canadians.

To that end, much of Ms. Simon’s work has been devoted to renegotiating the relationship between Canada’s original peoples and the Crown. Now that she literally is to be the Canadian embodiment of the Crown, she will face Canada’s other sovereignty problem – one that will make her a symbol more than a voice. For the second time in her life, she might force us to find a solution.

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