For a brief moment, Mary Simon is savoring the comforts of home— in her case, a two-storey wood-frame house in central Ottawa. The bookshelves are filled with volumes on northern Canada and soapstone carvings, prints and paintings by northern artists grace nearly every inch of display space. Just back from a five-day trip to Norway, Simon has only a few days to unwind before embarking on a 10-day journey to Greenland and Russia. It is all part of her job as Canada's ambassador for circumpolar affairs and chair of the newly-formed Arctic Council, an eight-nation organization that is designed to foster cooperation in the northernmost regions of the planet. It also means spending more than half of each year on the road—a nomadic existence that is nothing new to the 49-year-old Inuit leader. "I seem to have been travelling all my life," she says with a hearty laugh.
Born in Kangirsualujuak (George River) in northern Quebec, Simon spent much of her first 15 years moving with her family from camp to camp by dogteam or canoe. Her Manitoba-born father, Bob May, who is white, went north as a Hudson Bay manager. He stayed on to found a fly-in fishing and hunting business and to marry Simon's mother, Nancy, who is an Inuk. The second eldest of eight children, Simon says she learned early on about "living close to the land" and how to sew her own parkas and kamiks, or traditional boots made of cariboo, walrus or seal hide. The family spoke Inuktitut and Simon took much of her schooling through correspondence courses. She credits those years with giving her a firm grounding in two very different cultures. "I can live down here in a house like this," she says with a sweep of her hand, "or I can go up North and live in a tent, and I'm very comfortable either way."
Good thing, too. These days, Simon's life is punctuated by cellular phone calls, faxes and labyrinthine plane schedules. Since 1994, when she became the first Inuit to hold an ambassadorial position in Canada, Simon has worked tirelessly to help found the Arctic Council, which held its inaugural meeting in Ottawa this September. Her goal, she says, is to show that international cooperation can have results—preserving, for example, the Arctic environment and creating northern jobs through free trade in northern products.
For Simon, the Arctic Council is the culmination of a career that has seen her play a leading role in several Inuit institutions. But it required some sacrifices. For most of her adult years, Simon has had to make her home base far from northern Quebec, where her parents and siblings still live. Before pulling out pictures of herself and the fish she caught during a recent visit home, Simon remarks wistfully: "The hardest part of my job is being away from my
family so much." She has also had to adjust to life in urban Canada, where the casual friendliness of a northerner is sometimes viewed with suspicion, if not outright alarm. "At first," she recalls with a wry smile, "I'd say hello to
strangers and make eye contact. People would look at me like I was crazy."
To relax, Simon and her husband, former CBC broadcaster Whit Fraser, canoe, camp and ski at every opportunity. She also cherishes her time with her three grown children, from a previous marriage, and the four grandchildren (with a fifth on the way) that they have given her. As her long-distance duties
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