A Star Goes Supernova: Julie Payette Resigns as Governor General


This week, we have seen the departure of a disgraced, self-serving petulant bully who left executive office with one last closing salvo of bitter recrimination and disavowal of personal responsibility for having created a toxic, dysfunctional workplace that showed absurdly high levels of turnover and waves of mass resignations.

And we also witnessed President Trump leaving the White House one last time.

Julie Payette marked her tenure as Governor General of Canada by oscillating between long bouts of lassitude punctuated by periods of immense controversy and heightened media scrutiny. Payette melted down Rideau Hall into a toxic workplace, systematically drove out the most experienced staff, and reduced those who remained to quotidian bouts of tears of frustration.

The controversies began swirling around Payette even before she was sworn in as Governor General. In July 2017, the Toronto Star uncovered that Payette had had two run ins with the law in Maryland: a mysterious expunged and dropped charge relating somehow to assault and her ex-husband, and she hit and killed a wayward pedestrian while driving through Leonardtown, Maryland in 2011.[1] Payette was not at fault for the latter accident, but the former perhaps hinted at a pattern of abusive behaviour which later manifested itself toward the civil servants at Rideau Hall. The Star inferred from these two incidents in 2017 that no one seemed to have vetted Payette.[2] Prime Minister Trudeau announced that he had nominated Julie Payette for Governor General on 13 July 2017[3], and the Queen of Canada appointed Julie Payette as Governor General of Canada on 2 October 2017.[4]

Upon her swearing-in in the Senate, Payette professed to believe in the following platitude:

“Anyone can accomplish anything and raise [sic] to the challenge as long as they are willing to work with others, to let go of the personal agenda, to reach a higher goal, and to do what is right for the common good. And this is exactly what I hope, in my mandate as a Governor General will reflect.”[5]

It didn’t. If anything, her tumultuous tenure reflected precisely the opposite.

Two rounds of intense media scrutiny followed in volleys in 2018 and again in 2020. In the fall of 2018, one year into Payette’s tenure, The National Post exposed that Julie Payette refused to do her duty of giving Royal Assent in Parliament Assembled in the Senate chamber in June 2018 and that she “did not appreciate having her scheduled altered on short notice” – i.e., she couldn’t be bothered to do her job.[6] The Privy Council Office had to waste precious time in persuading Her Excellency to carry out her constitutional duties; she remained unconvinced until the Clerk of the Privy Council himself called her and impressed the importance of the matter.

Payette resented this last-minute change to her calendar, though it remains unclear what other crucial event so desperately required her undivided attention, given that she had also scaled back her participation in public events and pettily placed all the Office of Governor General’s patronages with non-profit organisations like the Canadian Red Cross, Scouts Canada, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society “under review” – a review which she probably never bothered to conclude before resigning this week – in yet another sign that she considered herself more important than the office and its traditions.[7] Perhaps the Royal Canadian Geographic Society promotes problematic maps done in the dastardly Mercator Projection, and perhaps she did not appreciate the overwhelmingly conservative and monarchist atmosphere of Scouts Canada, but viewing the Canadian Red Cross as suspect takes an extraordinary degree of paranoia and contrarian petulent pettiness that only the most entitled and obdurant would dare muster. Then again, giving Royal Assent in Parliament Assembled would have entailed a daunting four-kilometer drive and cut into the time that Payette usually devoted to questioning nominees to the Order of Canada, letting official papers languish unsigned on her desk, and meddling in the science policies of the Trudeau government.[8]

The Post reported at the time that Payette retained a fierce introverted independence and resented “being told what to do” – a major defect for a constitutional Governor, who, by definition, must do what Ministers of the Crown advise in all but the most exceptional circumstances, which Payette never encountered in her tenure. (The only Governor who has recently confronted such conditions was Judith Guichon of British Columbia. In 2017, Guichon quite rightly rejected Premier Clark’s advice to dissolve the legislature after her government lost the vote of confidence on the Address-in-Reply, and thereby dismissed Clark from office).

The Post’s article set off a flurry of coverage as other newspapers broke similar stories. Payette also found hosting the Governor General’s History Awards for 2018 beneath her, which forced Canada’s National History Society to find alternate accommodations.[9] Payette also couldn’t be bothered in 2018 to host the ceremony for the Governor General’s Medals in Architecture.[10] Mere earthlings must understand that Payette has loftier dreams to achieve; she simply cannot waste time on such terrestrial and pedestrian concerns as architecture and history.

Like Donald Trump, Julie Payette could never resist offering her personal opinions on matters in public when a head of state or Queen’s representative should exercise more discretion. Payette deviated from standard governor generalities in a speech from November 2017, in which she expressed incredulity that anyone denies or disbelieves anthropogenic climate change, lamented that “we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention, or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone – oh, my goodness, lo and behold – random.[11] She continued by mocking homeopathy and astrology for good measure:Yet so many people still believe – want to believe – that taking a sugarpill will cure cancer, if you will it, and that your future and your personality can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”[12] After facing some criticism, she offered a witty rejoinder that stealthily doubled down on her original anti-creationist remark (and went over the head of the CBC journalist interviewing her), quipping “Everything evolves, and I evolve, too.”[13] She pledged to abstain from this tone in future speeches.[14] But she also set the precedent for the condescending non-apology “Why can’t everyone else just bow to my manifestly superior brilliance?” lament that she perfected in her letter of resignation this week. Unrepentant to the last, she told CBC News, “I learned you have to be careful about how you say things, but not what you say.”[15]

In this same media cycle, the Globe and Mail noted that Payette had still, after a year on the job, refused to move into Rideau Hall itself, in yet another indication that she saw herself as more important than the traditions of the office.[16]The Star noted that Payette had reduced her engagements by one-third compared to her predecessor, David Johnston; Michaelle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson had kept very busy compared to Payette as well.[17] Payette also routinely clashed with and deliberately thwarted both the RCMP officers assigned to protect her, and tore in officials from the National Capital Commission, which manages Rideau Hall and adjacent properties and oversees any renovations to them.[18] For example, she would “go jogging without informing her protective detail,” and she objected to the RCMP’s and National Capital Commission’s initiative to beef up security at 7 Rideau Gate – where Payette lived because she refused to stay in Rideau Hall itself –in the midst of some ongoing renovations at Rideau Hall. Staff of the National Capital Commission also incurred Payette’s wrath over the noise produced by the renovations.[19] If only those mere tradesmen and builders could understand that astronauts need the silence of space to think clearly. As of July 2020, Payette still had not moved from 7 Rideau Gate into Rideau Hall proper, despite having diverted $250,000 on renovations designed to “protect her privacy” within Rideau Hall.[20] This wasteful spending included $140,000 on “studying and designing a private staircase that was never built,” as well as more than “$117,500 on a gate and series of doors to keep people away from Payette’s office.” It is unclear whether Payette ever moved in at all before resigning on 21 January 2021.

In 2020, the CBC led a second wave of coverage focused primarily on the toxic work environment that Julie Payette had created. She and her Private Secretary Assunta di Lorenzo (a close personal friend of Payette who had no prior experience in government) had induced almost as much turnover in Rideau Hall as Donald Trump did in his White House; the institutional memory of Rideau Hall has fled and taken refuge elsewhere from regular fusillades of bullying, with four members of the communications staff departing during the pandemic[21] — though Payette had naturally dismissed such reports as exaggerated back in 2018,[22] when five of her staff quit within the span of three months. Apparently, “travel brings out the worst in Payette” and turned her into a Canadian equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson (the abusive oafish television presenter). Like a good megalomaniac, Payette would force her staff to huddle together for hours on flights so that she could dole out hearty collective punishment for their incompetence, mistakes, and failure to live up to her standards. She lashed out at her staff and complained that she had to work harder to compensate for their incompetence. After all, who could set higher expectations than an astronaut? In fact, Payette would demonstrate her superior intellect and belittle her staff by “quizzing them about outer space” and demanding that they name all the planets in the solar system (presumably from the Sun outward) and recite the distances between the Earth and the Sun and the Earth and the Moon and that sort of trivial nonsense which has nothing to do with carrying out the duties of Governor General. The CBC did not specify whether Payette included Pluto in her count. The fallout over the CBC’s story persuaded the Privy Council Office to hire Quintet Consulting Corporation to conduct an independent investigation into the extensive and well-documented reports on Payette’s bullying.[23]

Finally, on 21 January 2021, Quintet Consulting submitted its independent report to the Privy Council Office.[24] Julie Payette then made history as the first Governor General to resign the office in disgrace. She released a long-winded and self-serving statement full of mendacious phrasing; she obfuscates and steadfastly refuses to take direct responsibility for her deplorable behaviour:

“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. Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry.”[25]

Sorry, not sorry. Payette portrays herself as an observer through passive-aggressive third-person constructions like “It appears that” instead of fully owning up to what she is: the cause of all the problems.

In another disingenuous outburst of post-modern political rhetoric, Payette even mocked Prime Minister Trudeau’s remark from July 2018 that “people experience things differently,” dismissing her pattern of abuse and harassment as an example of how “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.” It’s not Payette’s fault, you see: the civil servants in Rideau Hall simply could not live up to her stratospheric expectations and recognise her complex but subtle genius. They probably couldn’t even name the planets of the solar system in order. As such:

“Notwithstanding, in respect for the integrity of my vice-regal Office and 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. Canadians deserve stability in these uncertain times.”

You have to love when an ostensible show of contrition starts off with “Notwithstanding.”

Payette dispels this absurd notion that she resigned under pressure from the findings of an independent consulting firm that the Privy Council Office hired to investigate allegations of her systematic and sustained abuse and harassment of staff. She casts herself as the devoted daughter who instead decided to resign to care for her ailing father: “From a personal side, this decision comes at an opportune time, as my father’s health has seriously worsened in the last few weeks and my family needs my help.” How opportune indeed.

Payette concludes:

“So it is with sureness and humility, but also with pride over what was accomplished during my tenure as Governor General and in my service to the country for the past 28 years, that I have submitted my resignation. I have informed the Prime Minister of Canada of my decision. I wish him the best as he seeks an individual to recommend to Her Majesty as the next Governor General of Canada and I wish the best to my successor. I will remain at his or her disposal.”

Indeed, the most humble always boast to others and broadcast their humility; otherwise, we might not have noticed. I’m relieved to hear that she has decided to resign not with hesitancy and braggadocio, but instead with sureness and humility.

Payette’s petulant letter affirms what many Ottawa mandarins have long known: that she was fundamentally unsuited to the Office of Governor General. Her puerile politician’s non-apology apology bears a striking resemblance to the statement which British Home Secretary (the equivalent of our Minister of Justice and Minister of Public Safety combined) Priti Patel delivered to the media late last year in the wake of a report which found that she had routinely harassed and bullied civil servants in the Home Office. In a scene lifted straight from The Thick of It, Patel told an incredulous reporter on 22 November 2020 at 0:58:

“I have unreservedly apologised for what was published last week in terms of the report’s findings –I’ve not seen the report, so I can’t comment any further.”

“I have given an unreserved apology to anyone who has been upset by anything that has taken place.”

“I unreservedly apologise […] if people felt upset by expressions of frustration […] [and] the way in which frustrations have been expressed.”

Patel has mastered the passive voice and diffusion of responsibility – “I unreservedly apologise if people felt upset by expressions of frustration” surely ranks as the crowning achievement of such rhetoric — in ways that Payette has not. Perhaps that is why British Prime Minister Boris Johnson overruled the report and insisted that Patel remain in cabinet.

Based on the insincere tone of Payette’s letter, as well as her dismissal of allegations on which the media reported in two waves in 2018 and 2020, it would not be surprising if she only announced her resignation because Trudeau threatened to advise the Queen of Canada to remove Payette from the Office of Governor General if she would not resign. For his part, the Prime Minister issued a bland and perfunctory statement, noting simply that he had received Payette’s resignation, effective immediately, reaffirmed that civil servants should not have to contend with harassment in the workplace, and concluded that “The Chief Justice of Canada will be fulfilling the duties of the Governor General” in the interim and that “a recommendation on a replacement will be provided to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and announced in due course.”[26]

Payette has failed to show genuine contrition and accept responsibility; she is merely sorry that the rest of us cannot handle her brilliance as a multi-lingual astronaut who once literally looked down on us all from her mighty celestial throne. She could sneer at us in six languages when two would have sufficed. Payette never showed any interest in carrying out either her constitutional duties like giving Royal Assent or promulgating Orders-in-Council, or her civil functions in delivering speeches, presenting honours and awards, and acting as a patron for various civil society organisations. She vainly considered herself more important that the office and its traditions and precedents, and she could never take responsibility for her mistakes. That is why she failed. Her only saving grace is that she spared us the spectacle of forcing the Prime Minister to drag Her Majesty the Queen into this mess to dismiss her wayward Governor General outright and revoke Payette’s commission through an unprecedented intervention.

Governors General usually champion certain causes during their tenure and try to recognise excellence in various fields. Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan) established the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 1937. Adrienne Clarkson created the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts in 2000 and the Governor General’s Northern Medal (now known as the Polar Medal) in 2005. Clarkson and Michaelle Jean both brought a certain glamour and flair to the office. David Johnston has won universal praise as a model constitutional Governor. But we will remember Payette not for trying to promote exercise and a love of winter sports[27], but rather for having carved out a role for herself in disgrace, vanity, apathy, arrogance, and bullying. This wayward astronaut’s orbit has finally decayed; she burned up through the atmosphere and came crashing down to earth. We can only hope that her meteoric fall has not also irrevocably destroyed the credibility of the Office of Governor General in a massive Chicxulub-like impact crater.

Notes

[1]Kevin Donovan, “Future Governor General Julie Payette Involved in Fatal Collision Months Before Assault Charge in Maryland,The Star, 19 July 2017.

[2]Jordan Press, “Reports of Dismissed Assault Charge Prompt Questions About Vetting of Julie Payette for Governor General Role,The Star, 19 July 2017.

[3]Canada, Prime Minister of Canada, “Prime Minister Trudeau Announces the Queen’s Approval of Canada’s Next Governor General,” 13 July 2017.

[4]Kathleen Harris, “Strength of Teamwork, Power of Dreams: Governor General Julie Payette Urges Fight for Common Good,CBC News, 2 October 2017.

[5]Kathleen Harris, “Strength of Teamwork, Power of Dreams: Governor General Julie Payette Urges Fight for Common Good,CBC News, 2 October 2017.

[6]Marie-Danielle Smith and Brian Platt, “Failure to Launch: Inside Julie Payette’s Turbulent First Year as Governor General,National Post, 22 September 2018.

[7]Marie-Danielle Smith and Brian Platt, “Failure to Launch: Inside Julie Payette’s Turbulent First Year as Governor General,National Post, 22 September 2018.

[8]Marie-Danielle Smith and Brian Platt, “Failure to Launch: Inside Julie Payette’s Turbulent First Year as Governor General,National Post, 22 September 2018.

[9]Brian Platt, “Julie Payette Doesn’t Plan to President Over 2018 Governor General’s History Awards Ceremony,” National Post, 26 September 2018.

[10]Marie-Danielle Smith and Brian Platt, “Failure to Launch: Inside Julie Payette’s Turbulent First Year as Governor General,National Post, 22 September 2018.

[11]CBC News, Governor General Julie Payette on What She Learned from Her Controversial Comments on Science, Religion, and Climate,” 30 August 2018. See video embedded in the article.

[12]CBC News, Governor General Julie Payette on What She Learned from Her Controversial Comments on Science, Religion, and Climate,” 30 August 2018. See video embedded in the article.

[13]CBC News, Governor General Julie Payette on What She Learned from Her Controversial Comments on Science, Religion, and Climate,” 30 August 2018.

[14]CBC News, Governor General Julie Payette on What She Learned from Her Controversial Comments on Science, Religion, and Climate,” 30 August 2018.

[15]CBC News, Governor General Julie Payette on What She Learned from Her Controversial Comments on Science, Religion, and Climate,” 30 August 2018.

[16]John Ibbitson, “Governor-General Julie Payette Needs to make a Choice About Her Role,” The Globe and Mail, 21 September 2018.

[17]Bruce Campion-Smith, “Governor General Julie Payette Faces Questions Over Her Workload and Schedule,” The Star, 23 September 2018.

[18]Daniel LeBlanc and Robert Fife, “Governor-General At Odds with RCMP Over Security Issues,” The Globe and Mail, 14 September 2018.

[19]Ashley Burke, “Privy Council Office Hires Private Firm to Review Harassment Claims at Rideau Hall,” CBC News, 1 September 2020.

[20]Ashley Burke, “More Than $250K Spent on Governor General Julie Payette’s Demands for Privacy at Rideau Hall,” CBC News, 6 August 2020.

[21]Ashley Burke and Kristen Everson, “Governor General Payette Has Created a Toxic Climate of Harassment and Verbal Abuse at Rideau Hall, Sources Allege,” CBC News, 21 July 2020.

[22]Melanie Marquis, “Julie Payette Says Report of Rideau Hall Turbulence Greatly Exaggerated,” CBC News, 18 December 2018.

[23]Ashley Burke, “Privy Council Office Hires Private Firm to Review Harassment Claims at Rideau Hall,” CBC News, 1 September 2020; Canada, Privy Council Office, “Office of the Secretary to the Governor General (OSGG) Workplace Review,” 25 September 2020.

[24] Ashley Burke, “Independent Firm Completes Review into Claims of ‘Toxic’ Environment at Rideau Hall,” CBC News, 21 January 2021.

[25] Office of the Governor General, “Statement from the Governor General,” 21 January 2021.

[26]Canada, Prime Minister of Canada, “Statement by the Prime Minister on the Resignation of the Governor General,” 21 January 2021.

[27]CBC News, “Governor General Julie Payette, On Skates, Encourages Canadians to ‘Get Active’ in New Year’s Message,” 29 December 2017.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively in my field. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Crown (Powers and Office), Governor General, Governor's Discretion. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Star Goes Supernova: Julie Payette Resigns as Governor General

  1. P B says:

    Brilliant! The Trump intro was clever and particularly apt. Payette’s elevation to the GG role was arguably one of the worst decisions made by Trudeau. On the plus side: having ditched the advisory committee on vice-regal appointments, he has to wear it.

    Like

  2. Kevin says:

    Beautiful prose on an ugly topic.

    Like

  3. Rand Dyck says:

    WOW! This article deserves the Governor General’s Literary Award!!!

    Like

Leave a Reply to Kevin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s