Guest Commentary

Mary Simon

The Upheaval

(Editor’s note: Newly-appointed Governor General Mary Simon, 73, was born and raised in Hudson’s Bay outposts near Ungava Bay at a time when Inuit life was largely untouched by outsiders. No governor general visited the North until 1956. Subsequent federal interventions saw Inuit relocated and assimilated. In a May 25, 2010 interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan, Ms. Simon recalled her childhood. Following is a transcription of her remarks)

People might consider it to be a hard life, but for us it was not a hard life, it was a normal life.  And the contentment to be able to go out and get what you need from the land, there’s a certain tranquility about that. My mother and my grandmother made most of our clothes when we were growing up. It was a normal day to get up and go out and get your water and cut your wood and go hunting or fishing.

We were always looked at as being very remote, very sparsely populated, not with very many needs. If it wasn’t about resource development there wasn’t really very much to talk about. The Arctic has always been seen as a vast region of Canada that is not inhabited. It’s all about the resources.

As soon as I started going to school and started getting into my teen years, I realized there were a lot of changes happening in our community. People were not living out on the land nearly as much as they did when I was a child. They were trying to integrate us into this new society and become who we were not. Mainstream society spoke English, mainstream society went to elementary school, went to high school, went to university. We had to be the same as everybody else.

Kids were taken away from their parents and shipped off to schools in faraway places where the parents didn’t really know where they were. In fact there were instances where the children never came home again.

It was very difficult for people to move off the land into the community and start to depend on the government for their very existence. They had to start tying up the dogs. Once you get into the community you have to tie up the dogs. In fact, there was a period when there was a slaughter of the dog teams. I remember the children crying over the dogs. It was very traumatic.

Inuit didn’t feel they could challenge those people. We have an Inuktitut word meaning you are afraid or scared of challenging a person because they are in authority. That was the relationship we had. Older people were told it was evil to practice their own spirituality. It became a shameful thing. They were told it was wrong.

The bonds that tied us together were severed. Children were brought up without their parents. We couldn’t speak Inuktitut even when playing outside at recess. And when children did return home they’d lost their relationship with their family. This painful experience is sometimes indescribable for them. They never recovered from it.

The assimilationist polices, the Residential Schools era, being moved into communities, having our dogs slaughtered – I think that’s had a very dramatic impact on our people. The problems that we face, which are very serious, are rooted in those very policies that were supposed to make things better.

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