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Queen’s University Courchene Lecture
Through the Eyes of the North: Our Collective Responsibility

Lecture given by The Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada (April 2022)

April 12, 2022


I would like to acknowledge that I am joining you today from Rideau Hall, which sits on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people.

Thank you for inviting me to join the impressive list of speakers who have delivered the Thomas Courchene lecture.

Throughout my life, I have navigated the bridge-building needed between the academic community, policy-makers, politicians and opinion leaders. And now, as governor general, I take on the role as a national bridge builder, connecting with Canadians and connecting them with each other.

It’s my hope that I can stretch our collective appreciation of Canada’s foundations, which include the rich oral and cultural traditions found in the Arctic.

We are, after all, an Arctic nation, and I’m so very proud to be the first Inuk—and the first Canadian born in Inuit Nunangat—to serve as governor general.

Growing up, I walked in two worlds. The first was the Inuit world of my mother and grandmother. My siblings and I learned our culture, stories and language, and how to live off the land. I learned to be proud of who I was, but at the same time, to keep my mind open to other points of view.

We were also fortunate to learn from my father about our other world: “the south,” referring to the “non-Indigenous world.” My father, who was born in Manitoba, developed a profound love and respect for the Arctic and for Inuit. He also recognized and valued what “the south” could offer his family.

Back and forth during my life I would walk over the bridge between these two worlds, using my knowledge of one to benefit the other. Always with the goal of improving Inuit lives.

And there was much to do. For decades, Inuit have experienced transition and upheaval. From a very young age, everything I learned helped me better understand the meaning of reconciliation and what being an “Arctic Nation” means.

Over the years, Canadian artists and authors have cemented the Arctic as part of our imagination, painting the region in a stark-white brushstroke. Others have seen only the untapped potential of natural resources.

Close your eyes. What do you see when I say: “Canada. Our North. An Arctic Nation.” For many of you, a snowy tundra and landscape will come to mind.

For the Inuit, though, the Arctic is not a place of business or imagination. It is a lived in homeland, with deep ties to culture and identity. It is more than a landscape. It is home. Where our families live. Where we work and play. It is our life.

But the North—and, more specifically, its people—were often an afterthought.

The question becomes: how do we ensure the Arctic is part of our collective responsibility?

By seeing our country through the eyes of the Arctic.

A successful and prosperous Canada includes robust and sustainable northern communities. It includes contributions from Inuit and other Indigenous peoples. And it includes policies that bolster and address the wide-ranging challenges of living in the North.

Incremental, positive changes are already happening. We have settled numerous land claims treaties, which grant Inuit ownership of large areas, some with full subsurface rights.

There have also been milestones in recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, for example, explicitly recognizes and affirms the treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, and specifies the term ‘Aboriginal peoples’ to include First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada. Or consider the creation of the new territory of Nunavut in 1999, and the establishment of the Nunavut government.

Other milestones included Canada’s ratification of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final Calls to Action; and the public inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

And most recently, outside Canada, His Holiness Pope Francis delivered a long-awaited public apology regarding residential schools.

The pain from residential schools remains and runs deep. Students were brought there after being ripped from their families and communities.

There, many were severely abused. They lost their language and culture. Too many lost their lives.

This apology was a first step, but it is just that: one step, and it’s one that must be followed with action. On the road to reconciliation, we must always strive to acknowledge the pain and the truth of our history. It’s about our stories—my story, your story, our peoples’ stories. And hearing our truths will guide us forward.

Because so much remains to be done. Let us return our attention to the North.

Consider this, from 2018:

34% of Inuit aged 25–64 have earned a high school diploma, compared to 86% of all Canadians in the same age group.
70% of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure. It’s 8% nationally.
Life expectancy for Inuit is 72.4 years; it’s 82.9 for the rest of non-Indigenous Canada.
The difference in the median income between Inuit and non-Indigenous peoples in Inuit Nunangat sits at more than $68,000.
And a suicide rate in the four Inuit regions that range from five to 25 times higher than Canada as a whole.

These are grim and unacceptable numbers, and one could easily lose hope. For too long, policies were imposed by asking, “What do we think is best for Inuit people? For Indigenous peoples?”

We need to rephrase that question: “What do Inuit people believe is the best course for themselves?”

One question takes agency away. The other gives it back.

It starts by looking at how public policy impacts Northern communities.

In 2017, I travelled across the Arctic, meeting leaders, youth, land claims organizations, community members and scientists, and many others. People from the North talking about solutions for the North.

The final report that I submitted to the Federal government, titled A New Shared Arctic Policy Model, embodies what the Thomas Courchene lecture series strives for: bridge-building to move our country forward.

I believe community wellness must drive the next period of sustainable development in the Arctic. Forward-looking policy discussion must reflect such issues as rising food prices and the alarming trend of children fostered to homes outside the community. And policy must address the excessive and unacceptable suicide numbers in the Arctic—what can only be described as a crisis—and the growing need for mental health and elder care. We cannot and should not wait to act.

The report underscored that the future of the Arctic relied on principles of partnership, developed through listening and working together with people in our Arctic communities.

This report also echoed what has been, for me, a guiding principle throughout my working life:

That reconciliation is not one project, nor does it have an end date. It’s a continuing process of understanding and respect.

We must pursue partnerships and policy-making that includes reconciliation. We must commit to building and restoring relationships, to seeing things differently than before, and to valuing Indigenous knowledge.

We must also examine policy approaches for nature and environmental conservation in the Arctic. This is particularly vital as we continue to confront climate change.

Addressing this issue can also be a tool for healing and reconciliation. This may involve supporting communities and individuals in regaining land-based life skills; reconnecting youth with their cultural traditions and language; recognizing and including Indigenous knowledge in decision making; and guaranteeing that there will always be places and lands to call home.

Sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic and its peoples was the impetus for forming the Arctic Council in 1996. As Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs at the time, I was engaged in the process, representing Canada and working with the other seven Arctic nations to find common ground for discussion and agreement.

The Arctic connects us all, regardless of borders and boundaries. A warming climate is changing the nature and environment of the Arctic, opening up Arctic waters and altering our connectivity with northern communities. It is also impacting the traditional ways of life for Inuit.

It is clear no one country can go it alone. It requires cross-border collaboration. That is why diplomacy, particularly through the Council, is so vital.

Today, Russia’s heartbreaking invasion of Ukraine has stalled work on the Arctic Council. But confronting these issues cannot wait. We must find a way forward, urging dialogue over conflict.

Inuit and other Indigenous peoples need opportunities, and the resources, to succeed. When that happens, we will live up to our reputation as a diverse, tolerant and equal society.

In everything, it comes back to the truth.

I have given you a snapshot of what happens in the North, a glimpse into the Inuit experience. But, it’s only a small fraction of the Arctic and Inuit story.

I encourage you now to seek out the truth of our history. And ask yourself: how can I shift my view, not to a Canada of the North, but to see Canada from the North?

I mentioned earlier that it’s easy to lose hope. But hope is not lost. It’s never lost as long as we dedicate ourselves to action.

During my travels as an Inuit leader, as an ambassador and now as governor general, I have seen examples of strong local leadership transforming communities, one step at a time. And not just elected representatives. Leaders can be community leaders, public servants, negotiators, advocates, and policy or other types of specialists. They are educators, small business owners and elders. I see leaders everywhere, when they’re given the tools and opportunities to succeed.

I also see leaders when I look at all of you, young people who speak out about issues of diversity, equality, mental health, nature and the environment. And who are champions of culture, education, language and reconciliation.

We all share a role, not only in developing and implementing Arctic policy, but also in reshaping our views of our country and the diverse peoples who call this land home.

There is a word in Inuktitut, an important concept for Inuit, with no direct translation: ajuinnata. Its essence is a promise—never to give up. It’s committing ourselves to action, no matter how daunting the cause may be.

Indigenous peoples are relying on you to meet this important moment in history. Continue to educate yourselves on Inuit and, more broadly, Indigenous history. Listen to their stories. Embed reconciliation in your work. And let us all work in the spirit of ajuinnata towards understanding, respect and reconciliation.

I now look forward to hearing from you, your thoughts, your questions, your hopes and dreams for our country.

Thank you.

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