During the constitutional talks in 1980s, Mary May Simon and other Indigenous leaders gathered at the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa to hammer out the equality rights in Canada’s Constitution with federal and provincial politicians.
Nearly 40 years later, the Inuk leader found herself back in the same location, now the Senate of Canada Building, being installed as Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
“Where we gather here today is of enormous significance to me,” Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary May Simon said in her inaugural speech as governor general on July 26, 2021. “Thirty-nine years ago, when this was the Government Conference Centre, I worked with other Indigenous leaders and first ministers to have our rights affirmed in the Constitution of Canada.
“That moment made this one possible.”
The former conference centre became the Senate’s temporary home in 2018, when Centre Block was closed for rehabilitation work. While it’s long been tradition that governors general be installed in the Senate Chamber, Ms. May Simon’s installation as the country’s 30th marked the first time this ceremony took place in the Senate of Canada Building — a venue that has now been the backdrop to two pivotal events in Ms. May Simon’s personal story and the history of Canada.
As the representative for Canada’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth ll, the former ambassador and lifelong advocate for Inuit rights and culture will now perform a range of constitutional and ceremonial duties on the Sovereign’s behalf.
A governor general’s responsibilities include hosting foreign royalty and heads of state; appointing senators and other government officials on the advice of the prime minister; summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament; reading the Speech from the Throne to open a new session of Parliament; and granting Royal Assent to bills passed in the Senate and the House of Commons.
The installation ceremony for the new viceregal reflected the diversity of Canada and Ms. May Simon’s Inuit heritage.
Escorted by Usher of the Black Rod J. Greg Peters, Ms. May Simon entered the crimson-coloured Senate Chamber to the sound of the qilaut, a traditional Inuit drum. The warm light of the qulliq, an Inuit lamp made of soapstone, glowed in the front of the room, symbolizing the strength of Inuit families and the deep personal responsibility Ms. May Simon took on in her new role.
Next Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin elder, welcomed guests to the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people, telling Ms. May Simon, “We greet you with kindness and love as our relative.”
While the installation of a governor general usually means a full house in the Senate Chamber, the reality of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made its mark on the event. The number of guests was significantly reduced to respect public health restrictions and everyone involved was required to follow protocols regarding mask wearing, hand sanitizing and physical distancing.
Attendees included Speaker of the Senate George J. Furey, his House of Commons counterpart, Anthony Rota, as well as leaders of national Indigenous organizations, dignitaries and parliamentarians.
Whit Fraser, Ms. May Simon’s spouse, also looked on as she took the various oaths of office, administered by Chief Justice Richard Wagner. The sound of a 21-gun salute boomed through downtown Ottawa immediately afterwards.
Ms. May Simon took her place on the Throne of Canada, which occupies the dais — or platform — at the front of the Chamber, while Mr. Fraser sat beside her on the consort’s throne. The Throne of Canada is used only by the Sovereign or the governor general during parliamentary and ceremonial events.
Ms. May Simon delivered her inaugural speech in English, French and Inuktitut and addressed a range of issues, notably diversity, youth, climate change, mental health and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“I have always seen Canada as a metaphor for a family,” Ms. May Simon said. “As members of our large and diverse Canadian family, we have to replace the hurt with hope and find the grace and humility to stand together and look towards a more just and equitable future.”
The new governor general also elicited laughter from attendees by sharing that her Inuk name, Ningiukudluk, means “bossy, little old lady.”
At the end of the ceremony, Ms. May Simon was led out of the Chamber by the Usher of the Black Rod.
She then visited the National War Memorial to lay flowers and perform an inspection of the guard of honour.
Governor General Mary May Simon and her spouse Whit Fraser look on as Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin elder, welcomes guests at the installation ceremony.
The new governor general delivers her inaugural speech in the Senate Chamber.
Chief Justice of Canada the Right Honourable Richard Wagner administers the oaths of office for Governor General Mary May Simon.
Governor General Mary May Simon takes her place on the Throne of Canada, with her spouse Whit Fraser, seated on the consort’s throne.
Sally Webster, an Inuk elder from Baker Lake, Nunavut, tends the qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp. Ms. Webster is accompanied by Tooneejoulee Kootoo-Chiarello.
Governor General Mary May Simon leaves the Senate led by the Usher of the Black Rod J. Greg Peters.