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Great Northern leader

Oration honouring Mary May Simon
Wednesday, May 28, 10 a.m.

There is among the Netsilik, Inuit of Inuvialuit, a tale told about a man who was out seal hunting under a bright night sky. From that sky the Moon came down to the man and brought him up into the sky to his home which was filled with marvels, the greatest of which was his sister, the beautiful young woman, the Sun. She offered the man food and comfort but it suddenly struck him that, were he to stay, to eat of their food, he would abandon his own family which depended on him. He fled the Moon’s house and fell back to his seal hole on earth where he caught a fat seal and was able to feed his family.

This is a tale of the self-denier, the one who for the sake of his community defers seeking his own pleasures. It provides an interesting analogy for the Inuit in our own time and in our own place for in April the Nunatsiavut government deferred the prospect of immediate wealth when they postponed development of uranium mining on their own lands. The mining would have provided work, skills training, infrastructure – all essential to the general growth and development of Nunatsiavut, but the Inuit saw a need for slow consideration of such major change, the need to consider the environmental, economic and social ramifications of such development. And to the shock of many both in Labrador as well as in Newfoundland, they turned it down – for the moment. That takes a wisdom, a wisdom that we who are prone to rush greedily at any opportunity, can only sit back and observe with wonder – and, after the sense of it settles in, accept with admiration. And we should remember that Mary May Simon was the Labrador Inuit’s special advisor but a few short years ago.

This, Vice-Chancellor, is the culture from which she springs. Born in Kuujjuak in Nunavik, across the border from Labrador, the daughter of a white father and an Inuk mother, she grew up between two cultures but was formed by the North and it is the North that has made her such an exceptional Canadian figure. Starting out with the CBC, she was elected to the board of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association in 1976. She then moved on to the vice-presidency and, subsequently, the presidency of the Makivik Corporation, the body which administers the funds from James Bay and is responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the region – no minor task of governance or of management. Subsequently she held a number of posts, among them the presidency of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Her remarkable capacity for leadership came to the attention of Ottawa and she was appointed Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, a post she held from 1994 until 2003 during which time she also served as Canada’s Ambassador to Denmark, and was the first aboriginal, not just the first Inuk to hold an ambassadorial post. She was a deft enough diplomat to be able to persuade the Russian government to allow Inuit in their territories to become involved in the Circumpolar Conference.

In 2006 she was elected president of the Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization, and now finds herself addressing issues of arctic sovereignty and the seal hunt.

Her culture has given Mary May Simon an understanding of the connection between the people and the land. She knows the light that shines in the ice-house is the gift of the seal beneath the ice. She knows land and sea, animal and human are all one and that there is a need for a mutual regard, a mutual respect between them. This need becomes more urgent as we confront global warming – a matter which has serious and immediate implications for her people. The regard in which she is held crosses boundaries for not only is she a member of the Order of Canada, but also of the Gold Order of Greenland, and of the National Order of Quebec, and has received the Aboriginal National Achievement Award and the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Vice-Chancellor I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, this great Northern leader, Mary May Simon.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator
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