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Defenders for Human Rights
Mary Simon

Mary Simon Cultural Identity and Education

GRADE LEVELS = 7 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Five 60 minute class periods

“You’re an individual with an identity that you’re born with. I was born with an Inuit identity with distinct culture and language and a certain environment and a way of life. If that is taken away either forcefully or insidiously, in many situations, to me, that is a violation of your human rights.”

When Mary Simon was eight years old, she would bundle herself up in her parka against the -40° C temperature, meet with her friends, and set off on the trek to her federal day school down the long walking path.

But as they grew closer and closer, nerves would set in. Loud, cheerful voices would settle into unsettled murmurs.

“We’ve got to stop speaking Inuktitut,” someone would whisper.

The brave would keep talking for a while, but soon there was only silence.

“By the time we got to the school, we weren’t talking to each other,” Mary says. “Can you imagine something like that?”

At their school in the Arctic, run by the Canadian government, Inuit children could only speak English until the school bell rang and they were able to go home. Those who disobeyed were punished.

This was Nunavik, Quebec in the 1950s. A lot has changed for Canada’s Inuit population since then. The last of the residential schools, one of which Mary would have attended after elementary school had she followed Nunavik’s school system rather than being homeschooled, closed in 1996. In 2008, the Canadian government gave a formal apology for the abuse First Nations, Métis and Inuit experienced in the schools.

Mary wants more. “Born an optimist,” she feels the keys to improved rights for the Inuit is understanding and action.

“My father always used to say, my mother and my grandmother too,” she says, “that if you see something you don’t like and you want change, don’t wait for somebody to do it for you. Get involved and do it.”

At 15, Mary started to question the world she lived in, seeing it was one cut off from the privileges and rights non-aboriginal Canadians enjoyed.

When she became a journalist, maintaining her silence became impossible.

“(CBC) said I was becoming too political in my coverage. So, basically, my boss, who didn’t speak a word of Inuktitut, said I had to either become more benign, in terms of my reporting, or maybe a good thing would be to get into politics. Within months I was gone.”

She moved to Ottawa where she began working for her first and truest political home, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) – at the time, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) – Canada’s national Inuit activism group. Although she has been the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – which formally had the term “Eskimo” replaced with “Inuit” – and has worked for the United Nations and the Canadian government as the Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and to the Kingdom of Denmark, she always comes back to the ITK.

Through ITK, Mary is equipped to fight for her people. She doesn’t back down, even if it means standing up to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the middle of the First Ministers Conference in 1985.

She didn’t even have a seat at the table, but she tapped on a friend’s shoulder and managed to switch into his. She refused to agree to the flaws, and defended those who didn’t understand enough to push back.

“You could hear this really loud applause in this huge room that sort of had an echo. It was the most amazing experience of my life. And the deal never went through,” Mary says.

Thirty years later, people still recognize her.

“People just remember, ‘you’re the one.’ It’s amazing for me to get people to respond to me like that. I always feel very humbled by it, because I just think, I’m just doing my job.”

Mary often found herself as the only woman in a room of powerful men. She keeps up that outspoken tradition, fuelled largely by the rights she strives to attain, but she admits being the underdog can be unnerving.

“You shake in your boots sometimes,” she says, laughing, “especially if you’re talking to the prime minister.”

Through that work, she’s found an ongoing purpose: to achieve understanding, you must first educate. For many she’s met, the task comes down to the basic existence of the Inuit people.

“People don’t even know there are Inuit or even that we are one of the First Peoples of Canada. Many thousands of people don’t even know we exist. There’s a big gap in terms of education. We’re not in the education system.”

Much of Mary’s work will take years to accomplish, dealing with many governments. But that doesn’t bother her anymore.

“We can do it in 50 years. … Just because you won’t be there in 50 years, or me, doesn’t mean we can’t do it. But to give up something you can gain, what’s the purpose?”

Finding support for her people, Mary says, is vital. As an example, in Iqaluit, Nunavut, she says, the frustration of the young people is tangible. Grade 10 students were finding that their reading levels weren’t close to their Canadian peers. University is becoming impossible and that, they said, “isn’t fair.”

It’s a combination of lacking curriculum and low attendance. For Mary, their complaints hit home. For Inuit youth, education is often the difference between a bright future and lifelong poverty.

“I have children myself and it takes support and encouragement to keep children in school. I’ve seen so many youth drop out of school, including some of my own family members. I also had nieces and nephews that went to Montreal to go to university and had to go back home because they couldn’t get into university. I knew there was a serious problem, a real big gap there. But when I found out about it, it just sunk in even deeper.”

For Mary, there is justice in respect and freedom, which she sees in her three children finding success in their chosen pursuits, and flourishing in a family tree once parched by oppression.

“It’s not about me or you,” Mary says. “It’s just about finally having some kind of recognition that our people are a people.”

“Sovereignty begins at home. Let’s build healthy, safe communities for our people. … When you have permanent communities, and you have permanent people living in those communities, which have been their homes for thousands of years, there will never be any question (of them belonging there).”
“When you go through adversity, what do you do? Do you learn from it? Do you let it get to you? Do you build on your strengths to fight that adversity and to overcome it? To me, that’s a very important aspect of identifying issues that affect us as a people. What are the things that are fundamentally wrong? What are things that are changeable?”
“Respect each other. Doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re an Inuk, a First Nations, Métis, French Canadian, English Canadian, or somebody from another country. Respect each other, each other’s culture, each other’s identity, and accommodate the differences. It’s a big world.”