As one of the most awarded people in Canada, it’s hard to believe Inuit leader Mary Simon never dreamed of becoming the guiding force behind the many huge national and international policy changes made for Northern people over the last four decades, and a role model for indigenous women everywhere.
But her path to leadership, which has seen her hold the presidency of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Nunavik’s land claims organization as just a few of her life’s accomplishments, was the unplanned and unexpected result of simply being herself and stepping out of her comfort zone.
“I never intended or had any ideas about being the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council until I went to that first big gathering in Alaska,” Simon, originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, recounted. “But these things can open up possibilities.”
That’s one of the messages the heavily lauded leader wants to impart on young, emerging trailblazers from across the North who will be gathering in Yellowknife next month to network, share ideas and build mentoring relationships at the first-ever Indigenous Circumpolar Women’s Gathering, Nov. 12-14, where she will deliver remarks as a keynote speaker.
Barriers to women stepping into leadership roles are not as intense as they used to be, says Simon, who remembers dealing with her fare share of gender-based discrimination during her earlier years.
“Oh, I’ve had a few experiences in the last 40 years,” she says with a laugh. One instance that stands out is from her time at a negotiating table, when certain men in the room did not want to recognize her as being appointed by the Inuit as their representative.
In that instance, male allies actually stood up for her – a moment that she said reflects the crucial role men must play in ending gender discrimination.
“It’s very important, especially for people working with you, that if they see discrimination going on, they need to address it,” she said. “Women can’t always address it directly because of the fear of losing their jobs. So men need to stand up and defend women.”
While circumstances are not the same as they were when she was in her twenties, Simon said certain barriers persist, like the fact that women continue to be paid less for doing the same job and, as primary caregivers in the majority of households, can be held back by a lack of childcare options.
“A male-dominated workforce can be pretty intimidating, as well,” she adds, “and women tend to not move forward as much as they should, to not challenge the status quo as much as they should, and I mean that in a positive way – to be assertive, diplomatic. It can be intimidating. I experienced it myself.”
She said it’s imperative that women overcome that intimidation – to be themselves – in order to ensure there is balance among the new generation of emerging young leaders in Northern, indigenous communities.
“I think men and women see things in different ways. For instance, I have found in my work as a leader representing both men and women and children in different organizations, when you sit on a board, men tend to look at economic development type of issues, and women tend to look at issues affecting families, issues that affect the health of families. So you need both, because we need both in terms of our livelihood. When there is a balance of men and women in any work, it brings out the best in both.”
On the whole, Simon said there needs to be more training for people in leadership positions to understand their roles and the responsibilities that come with them, which is why she has started giving workshops on just that.
“Just because you get elected doesn’t mean you’re a leader,” she said. “You never really stop learning. Don’t ever think you stop learning just because you’re a leader.”
Though barriers are often seen as a negative, Simon said they, like all struggles, are important for building strength. Throughout the creation of the Arctic Council, the settlement of land claims for the Inuit and her work on national education standards, Simon said she has always faced adversity, and it was the groundbreaking work like establishing new governments and protecting culture and language that has become the strongest part of her identity as a leader.
“Issues are what I call mountains. They require a lot of sacrifice, stamina and struggle,” she said.
“If my leadership has taught me anything, it’s that most transformations emerge out of struggles. Every generation has the responsibility to build off of the previous generation. Sacrifice and struggle is now required from a new generation of leaders.”