On the morning of Monday, July 26, Mary Simon was sworn in as the 30th Governor General of Canada and the first Indigenous person to hold the position. The installation ceremony faced several restrictions due to COVID-19, with only 44 people permitted to attend in person, including some of Simon’s family members. However, the result was an intimate ceremony, one that was threaded together with elements of Simon’s Inuit heritage.
Performing at the ceremony was Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac from Salluit, Nunavik, QC. Donning a black pantsuit and beaded earrings, Elisapie sang “Arnaq” from her album The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. Sung completely in Inuktitut, the song’s name translates to “woman” and speaks to the strength and value that women hold—fitting for the momentous occasion of Simon’s installation as Governor General.
Elisapie wearing a red arnauti-inspired outfit by Victoria Okpik at the Polaris Music Prize awards night in 2019Courtesy Dustin Rabin/Polaris Music Prize
Elisapie is no stranger to singing “Arnaq” to a live audience, having performed the powerful song during the 2019 Polaris Music Prize awards where she was shortlisted for The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. During her performance, Elisapie wore a sheer red arnauti, designed specifically for her by Inuk fashion designer Victoria Okpik of Quaqtaq, Nunavik, QC. Through her label, Okpik Designs, Okpik creates a beautiful array of Inuit clothing, from parkas and mittens to purses decorated with intricate Inuit designs. “My inspiration is usually Inuit clothing styles. Something that will be practical and be worn for everyday life in the North,” she says.
Coincidentally, Okpik was also involved in the installation ceremony, designing the ensemble the Governor General wore—a navy knee-length dress with a beaded collar and matching jacket that has received national attention since the ceremony.
Victoria Okpik Atigi parka (2019)Courtesy the artist
Simon had wanted to wear a special outfit that was from her home region to the ceremony, and Okpik worked with fellow Inuk beader Julie Grenier of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, to deliver that dream. Okpik and Grenier were working on a tight deadline to get the outfit completed, with a mere 20 days to figure out the style, materials, colours and beadwork. Since Grenier, Simon and Okpik weren’t able to meet in person, Okpik obtained style preferences, colour choices and measurements through email communications.
Grenier, who has been beading since the age of eight, learned the skill from her mother and grandmother. Learning at such a young age ignited a passion for beadwork in Grenier, who continued to practise her craft and create her own designs as she grew. This innate talent for beading and design-making played a pivotal role in her work on Simon’s dress.
The artist created the design for the collar after discussions about what type of beading to add to the dress. The ultimate decision was to embellish the collar with embroidered beading, and Grenier worked tirelessly to create a floral and leaf pattern symbolizing all Indigenous Peoples throughout Canada.
After many painstaking hours of work by both creators, the dress was delivered to Governor General Mary Simon at 5 PM on the eve of the ceremony. Okpik and Grenier have both expressed the honour they feel in being a part of something so memorable.
Through Elisapie’s moving performance, Okpik’s and Grenier’s intricate design, and Governor General Mary Simon’s speech—addressing reconciliation and inclusiveness—the presence of these artists brought a stronger Inuit and more broadly Indigenous presence to the Governor General’s inauguration than has historically been present.