On the day President Biden took his oath of office in “the States”, Canada’s ceremonial head of state was preparing to resign after a blistering government-authorized review found she created a toxic work environment.
It was a dramatic fall to earth for Governor General Julie Payette, a two-time Space Shuttle astronaut tapped for Canada’s top official (but apolitical) position in 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Payette had already stirred controversy for frequent absences from Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
The Governor General officially represents Queen Elizabeth II in Canada. Each of the country’s ten provinces has a Lieutenant Governor who also represents the queen, but at the provincial level. The Lieutenant Governor for British Columbia resides at Government House on a low hill in Victoria.
The Governor General is officially head of state. They call the winners of national elections to form a government and swear in cabinet ministers.
If a government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the Governor General can ask an opposition leader to try and form a government. The Governor General is also titular commander of the country’s armed forces.
Why have such a position? A lot of Canadians are asking that question right now. The Governor General is supposed to be a unifying symbol, mirroring a role occupied by Queen Elizabeth across the pond, as are Her Majesty’s viceregal representatives in the provinces. (During dinners at Government House in Victoria, the Lieutenant Governor is piped in and out with all standing.)
Unfortunately for Canada, Julie Payette wasn’t properly vetted for the job. Trudeau and his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, have acquired a reputation for winging it on appointments.
Sometimes their choices work. The elder Trudeau tapped famed Vancouver architect Arthur Ericksen to design Canada’s spectacular embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., with its sculpture by native artist Bill Reid in the foyer. Then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney groused that his ambassador in Washington, D.C., had better digs than the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa.
Payette needed background checks. When appointed in 2017, she was coming off a contentious divorce. She had been arrested six years earlier in assault charges against her then-husband. The charges were later withdrawn. Payette fought unsuccessfully in court to keep records sealed from news organizations.
A week after her appointment came news that Payette had been cleared for involvement in a 2011 car accident in which a fifty-five-year-old woman was killed. Payette was then living in Maryland as part of her astronaut training. The court noted that the deceased had pre-existing medical conditions and poor eyesight.
Payette came under criticism for her work ethic, breaking the tradition that the Governor General visits all ten provinces as well as Canada’s territories during their first year in office. She missed Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.
The worst news came last July, when the CBC reported that Payette, as Governor General, was the Great White North’s boss-from-hell, harassing, belittling, and reducing “some staff members to tears, causing multiple people to quit.”
Her executive secretary, Assunta di Lorenzo, was accused of bullying, and calling staff “incompetent” and “lazy”, along with Payette.
The end came at a meeting Wednesday night with Trudeau. On Thursday, she announced: “For the good of our country and of our democratic institutions, I have come to the conclusion that a new Governor General should be appointed.”
Governors General of Canada were named by the Brits until 1952. Since then, the Governor General is appointed on recommendation of the Prime Minister.
Over the years, the post has been held by several now infamous figures.
Lord Stanley donated the initial cup, now known as the Stanley Cup, awarded to the National Hockey League’s champion. Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in British Columbia bears the name of John Buchan, the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, known for his novel “The 39 Steps”, which was made into a thriller by Alfred Hitchcock.
Lord Grey, a British nobleman, served as Governor General from 1904 to 1911. He made a physically demanding trip across B.C.’s Purcell Mountains. One of the great backcountry hiking destinations in Canada, Earl Grey Pass, bears his name. A nearby peak is named Lady Grey.
Inclusiveness has become a theme of Trudeau’s Liberal Party in naming Governors General in recent years. A Hong Kong-born broadcaster, Adrienne Clarkson, became the first Chinese Canadian Governor General. She took great in the far north, undertaking a trip to Iceland, Norway and Russia.
The vice regal Clarkson was a regal presence but immersed herself in the job. She was succeeded by Michaelle Jean, a Haitian-born French language broadcaster.
The next Governor General will face challenges.
The Liberal Party of Trudeau has a minority of seats in parliament. A no-confidence vote could pass in the House of Commons should all three opposition parties vote for it. A new national election could come later this year.
Trudeau is a little chastened by the Julie Payette debacle, and is making statements that all employees of the Government of Canada are entitled to a safe and abuse-free workplace regardless of who they work for.
The opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole offered up constructive and understated advice: “Considering his (Trudeau’s) last appointment and the minority parliament, the Prime Minister should consult opposition parties and reestablish the Vice Regal Appointments Commission.”
The Monarchist League of Canada, in a statement, suggested looking across the pond for inspiration: “It is important to remember that the Governor General represents the admired head of state, the Queen.”
Adrienne Clarkson got her surname from her first husband Professor Stephen Clarkson (m. 1963; div. 1975).
As Governor-General her consort was John Ralston Saul. They married in 1999 to appease public sentiment.
She came to Canada at the age of three. Her sister-in-law Vivienne Poy became a Canadian Senator.