Simon First Native Ambassador

There is an old copy of the Moccasin Telegraph magazine mounted in the front hall of the ambassador's Ottawa home. From its cover, Mary May Simon, a young Inuk girl pictured against the vast whiteness of the Arctic tundra, smiles back at the reader. Forty-two eventful years have passed since Simon appeared on the cover of the now defunct native-affairs magazine. Simon left her home in tiny Kuujjuaq, on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec, as a teenager to continue her education. Later, she worked as a broadcaster with the CBC in the North and eventually helped to negotiate the James Bay Agreement. In October, Simon, 47, was appointed as Canada's first Arctic ambassador - and she has been lobbying hard for more co-operation on Arctic issues ever since. Standing in front of the fading Telegraph cover, Simon told Maclean's that she can already feel the pressure. "Expectations are very high in the North," she said. "I'm expected to deliver."

The appointment of Simon, the first aboriginal person to become a Canadian ambassador, fulfilled a Liberal foreign policy commitment made during the 1993 federal election campaign. And it comes at a time of growing co-operation between the world's eight circumpolar nations - Canada, the United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark, which governs Greenland. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arctic countries have shifted the main focus of their northern foreign policy from military security to environmental protection. Now, many Canadian northerners hope that Simon will be able to convince other polar nations to go one step further and create an Arctic council. The council would include senior government ministers, and develop binding policies on a number of shared concerns, including environmental protection. And late last month, Simon took her campaign to Washington, where she lobbied senior U.S. state department officials on the need for the council. Said Simon: "When the council reaches a commitment, the government should have the will to address the issue."

Longtime northern affairs observers believe Simon's appointment also clearly indicates that Ottawa policy-makers are putting a far greater priority on Arctic issues. Terry Fenge, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, describes Simon as "tenacious, head and shoulders above most northern leaders." Simon, he adds, should be able to focus the government's attention on the mounting evidence that Canada's fragile Arctic environment is threatened by pollution from other polar countries. "Environmental security has become the number 1 foreign policy objective for Canada in the Arctic realm," says Fenge. "Simon's appointment is evidence that the government understands this change."

The Inuit people of the Arctic also have a more practical agenda for Simon. Rosemarie Kuptana, president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the elected body that represents the 40,000 Inuit in Northern Canada, says her people also want Simon to help bring the Arctic economy into the 21st century by expanding their traditional resource-based industries. In part, says Kuptana, this could be done by allowing native hunters to export more products, such as seal fur and meat abroad. To do so, however, will require renegotiating a number of international treaties including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which limits trade in animal byproducts. "In order to have jobs for our people and have food on the table, we need to find the markets," says Kuptana. "Simon could assist us in meeting with other senior government officials in other parts of the world, such as Japan."

Simon seems particularly suited to the task. Like many Inuit of her generation, she straddles two strikingly different cultures. This dualism is immediately evident on the front porch of her two-storey wood-frame home in Ottawa, where a welcome sign picturing two canoeists beckons guests. Inside the house, which she shares with her husband, former CBC northern affairs reporter Whit Fraser, Arctic images abound in paintings, drawings and sculptures - including a six-foot walrus tusk topped with a small carved polar bear. But when she talks politics, the dark-haired ambassador, who has three grown children from a previous marriage, sounds like someone who is equally comfortable in the corridors of power. Simon credits her father with teaching her not only how to fire a rifle and skin a caribou, but to thrive in the outside world as well. "He made us feel comfortable in Western culture," says Simon. "He believed in being well-educated and working with determination to get through things."

Today, Simon, who holds honorary doctorates of law from both McGill and Queen's universities, returns as often as she can to Kuujjuaq, a settlement of 1,700 people near the mouth of the Koksoak River on the coast of Ungava Bay, 1,400 km north of Montreal. Most of her eight brothers and sisters still live in the area and she often joins them on hunting and fishing expeditions across the tundra. And even when she is home in Ottawa, where the fridge is often stocked with wild game, the North is never far from her conversation. In fact, when a Maclean's reporter visited, she was joking with Fraser over how to properly skin a caribou. At every opportunity the couple take their canoe to the nearest lake or river. Such outings help her cope with life in Ottawa. "Everything down here is very compartmentalized," says Simon. "But the Inuit adapt to change and are not always stuck in the same rut or viewpoint."

Simon has been adapting most of her life. She is the second oldest of the eight children raised by Bob and Nancy May, the latter an Inuk. Her father, who is white, was originally from Manitoba, but in the early 1950s took a job as manager of the Hudson Bay post in northern Quebec, trading dry goods and other supplies for furs. For the first 15 years of her life, Simon grew up like many other native children in the community, learning to hunt and mush across the snow in a dogsled. "We had hunting and fishing camps," recalls Simon. "So we lived out in the country most of the time."

Simon took her early schooling through correspondence courses under her father's tutelage. In 1962, when she was 15, she left home to continue her studies in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she lived with friends of her family. She returned to northern Quebec after graduating from high school and in 1969 she joined the CBC as a radio producer, filing stories from remote corners of the Canadian Arctic. Her work with the CBC also brought her into contact with Hydro Quebec, which was then proposing to build the James Bay power project. As she learned more about the project, which included damming major rivers in the southern James Bay region, she became increasingly alarmed about its impact on native people. In 1982, she was elected president of Makivik Corp. - the organization created to administer the funds that the Inuit received from the development. Recalls Simon: "There were a few aboriginal people on one side, and the government negotiating with you with a lot of resources available to them."

Simon's involvement with Makivik also brought her into contact with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC). The conference, founded in 1977, represents more than 115,000 Inuit people living in the Arctic countries. It was struggling with many of the same environmental, social and economic issues confronting the aboriginal people of northern Canada. Simon, who served as president of the ICC from 1986 to 1992, says she was struck by how much the Inuit of each country had in common. Chief among their concerns: the desire to protect their traditional lifestyle from environmental damage and unchecked economic development. Observes Simon: "We don't want to change our way of life, which is tied to the environment as a living resource."

That unique culture is increasingly threatened by pollution from the Russian Arctic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the outside world learned that Russia had dumped radioactive material and other toxic wastes into the Arctic. As well, there have been numerous oil spills, including one in October in Siberia that American officials say may have dumped almost two million barrels of oil onto the tundra. An Arctic council, says Simon, could negotiate strong international agreements to control pollution in the North - a need clearly demonstrated by the latest Siberian spill. "Even though there was an Arctic environment protection strategy," says Simon. "They [the circumpolar nations] were not able to even discuss the issues."

That may soon change. Under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the United States opposed creation of the Arctic council, arguing that it could hinder American military strategies in the region. But U.S. policy towards the Arctic appears to be shifting under President Bill Clinton, who has declared his support for more co-operation in the region. Following her meetings in Washington, Simon said she intends to meet with representatives from the other circumpolar nations to brief them on the U.S. position, which she describes as quite positive. "I'm optimistic," says Simon.

For Simon and her fellow Inuit, the stakes are enormously high. She firmly believes that fostering better economic and diplomatic links among Arctic nations could help ease a number of crushing social ills, from alcoholism to suicide, which are blamed on lack of employment in the Far North. Central to that effort, she adds, is the need to promote native involvement in governments like the Inuit-dominated territory of Nunavut, which is to be established in Canada's Eastern Arctic by the end of the century. "There has to be a transfer of power to new institutions," says Simon. "That is what people want and that is what should happen." Northerners are counting on Simon to help them make it happen.

Maclean's February 6, 1995