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When new ambassadors arrive in Ottawa they are obliged to troop along to Rideau Hall, where they are officially welcomed by the Governor General, as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
The presentation of credentials ceremony is normally a formality carried out by the dignified branch of government – perfunctory and uneventful, if done right.
Yet heads of mission who have handed over their letters of credence to Julie Payette in recent times say they were lobbied privately by the Governor General to support Canada’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. A vote will be held in June and Canada is running against Norway and Ireland for the two-year mandate to represent “Western Europe and Others”. Government sources suggest it will be a close call.
One foreign diplomat who told me about the exchange said it was considered “unusual” – and, according to a number of accounts, it is. By convention, the governor general does not involve him or herself with government policy. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, the governor general is deemed to be non-partisan and above the fray of party politics. Payette’s predecessors were all firm non-interventionists when it came to politics.
A statement from Payette’s office does not refute she pushed Canada’s bid on foreign diplomats.
“The Governor General supports Canada’s foreign policy in many ways, in particular by receiving ambassadors, hosting state visits and representing the country on the international stage. The meetings and exchanges that take place in these circumstances are conducted in close collaboration with the government,” it read.
That suggests Payette was invited to raise the issue by the Prime Minister’s Office. A spokesman for the prime minister said he had no direct knowledge but defended the concept of governors general advocating government policy.
Winning the UN Security Council seat has been a foreign policy priority for the Trudeau Liberals – new foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, has been charged explicitly with the task of “expanding Canadian diplomacy in international institutions”. The campaign has added spice since the Conservatives were foiled in their efforts to win a seat in 2010, losing out to Portugal. Victory would validate Justin Trudeau’s claim that “Canada is back”.
All of which raises questions about whether the federal vice-regal representative of the Canadian monarch should be straying into a realm that is overtly political.
“She just doesn’t understand the role,” said one person who has worked with previous governors general.
It certainly represents a break with tradition. But that would not be the first time for this Governor General, who has marched to her own drum-beat since being appointed in 2017. According to published reports, she has resented demands on her personal time; expectations on how she should dress; restrictions on what she should say, and limitations on her interaction with politicians and bureaucrats.
She landed in hot water over comments she made about people who believe in creationism but not in climate change. And she caused a stir inside government when she refused to preside over a Royal Assent ceremony to legalize marijuana in 2018.
She just doesn’t understand the role
More recently, Payette has adopted a more conventional approach to her role. She is heading to Poland later this month for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, having recently been in Jerusalem at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum.
The Governor General’s supporters can argue with some justification that it is in the national interest for Canada to win a seat on the UN Security Council and that Payette is simply promoting the country. After all, the Queen helped publicize the London Summer Olympics in 2012, even appearing in a James Bond spoof video.
But there is a stronger case to be made that she should be a non-aligned constitutional actor who refrains from endorsing government policy.
It certainly provides more ammunition to critics who believe Payette is temperamentally ill-suited to the role of governor general. “As (John) Diefenbaker once said of (Lester) Pearson: ‘He’s the only man who could walk through a pasture and hit every cow pat’,” said one person with a long history of engagement with Payette’s predecessors.
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