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JIM VIBERT: It may be time for another dull Governor General

Canada's Governor General Julie Payette looks on during the delivery of the Throne Speech in the Senate, as parliament prepares to resume for the first time after the election in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Then Gov. Gen. Julie Payette looks on during the delivery of the Throne Speech in the Senate on Dec. 5, 2019. - Blair Gable/Reuters

When Canada’s vice-regal head of state, the Governor General, resigns in disrepute, if not disgrace, the government that’s responsible for her appointment has some soul-searching to do.

It’s clear that the Justin Trudeau government, and likely the prime minister himself, was so enamoured of the idea of a former female astronaut as GG — Julie Payette flew two space missions — that it clouded or obscured a troubling pattern in her past.

Postmedia, the CBC and others have chronicled staff turmoil at Payette’s former jobs, like the Montreal Science Centre where, it is widely reported, she ruled with a particularly harsh style.

I’m certainly no expert on qualifications for Governors General, but it seems like some skill at getting along with people would be near, or at, the top of the list. Most of the job after all, is meeting, greeting and making nice with everyday and extraordinary Canadians and the occasional foreign head of state.

Payette’s past job performance turned out to be a precursor to the conditions she created at Rideau Hall, with the help of Montreal lawyer and old friend, Assunta di Lorenzo, whom Payette inserted into the job as her secretary.

The secretary is the top post in the GG’s orbit and would normally go to a senior public servant with experience and expertise in managing a large staff of other public servants — Rideau Hall’s regular, and now traumatized, workforce.

The secretary is roughly equivalent to a deputy minister, and the Trudeau government should never have allowed Payette to pick her own, any more than it would allow new ministers to bring along new deputies of their own choosing.

The pair — Payette and di Lorenzo — changed the once collegial and coveted workplace at Rideau Hall into a “house of horrors,” according to CBC reporting earlier this year, based on interviews with staff and former staff.

The media attention prompted an independent review into workplace harassment at Rideau Hall, the GG’s official residence, and the report that came back to the Privy Council Office this week, although still under wraps, has been described as scathing by people in a position to know.

That report sealed Payette’s fate. By late Thursday afternoon, she was out as Canada’s official head of state. Fear not, we are not headless. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner, slides seamlessly into the Governor General’s constitutional role.

In her letter of resignation, Payette took no responsibility for the trouble, laying off the blame on di Lorenzo.

“Everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, at all times and under all circumstances. It appears this was not always the case at the office of the secretary to the Governor General,” Payette’s letter of resignation begins. “Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry.”

The “I am sorry” for tensions in the workplace is as close as the departing GG comes to an admission of error or acceptance of responsibility.

Enough said about Julie — maybe too much.

Through the years, Governors General have been mostly harmless, old white dudes.

In the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s, a string of them filled the office without a hint of controversy and with a reassuringly reliable dullness.

Roland Michener may be an exception, and Canadians of an age still associate him with an unnamed 72-year-old Swede who, we were told, could whoop your average 35-year-old Canadian.

Michener was an advocate of physical fitness before that was common, and he became closely associated with Participaction, a 1970s government program to encourage — or shame — Canadians into getting fit. The mythical septuagenarian Swede who could kick Canuck butt filled the shaming role.

In 1984, Pierre Trudeau appointed Canada’s first woman Governor General, Jeanne Sauvé, who brought a regal bearing to the vice-regal role.

About a decade later, Jean Chrétien named TV personality Adrienne Clarkson to the job, and Canada had its first celebrity GG.

Clarkson was followed by Michaëlle Jean, a Canadian of Haitian descent and the first person of colour in the role. Jean won my heart when, participating in an Inuit cultural event, she showed her solidarity with Indigenous seal hunters by eating a dripping chunk of raw seal heart.

After Jean, then prime minister Stephen Harper named a committee to vet and recommend candidates for GG, and out of that came another old white guy, David Johnston, who was also an accomplished academic and university president.

The Trudeau government may not revert back to the committee process that produced Johnston, but it could do worse. In fact, it did when it picked Payette by good old-fashioned but obviously flawed political instinct.

The Governor General has real constitutional functions, some of which are particularly relevant in a minority government, as we have now.

So, rather than scour the land for another big-name celebrity, maybe it’s time for Trudeau and company to play it safe and find a solid, wise and respected Canadian GG, who may be dull but won’t embarrass us or belittle and berate public servants.


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