The Queen’s representatives in Canada may appear to be merely symbolic appendages. But they are an integral part of our Parliamentary system since the attainment of representative government in 1758 (1791 in Upper and Lower Canada) and responsible government in 1848. Parliament has three parts: Commons, Senate, and Queen. Without the 11 viceroys our system could not function.
WHEN JULIE PAYETTE, pilot, deep-sea diver, engineer, astronaut, and polyglot, was named as Canada’s 72nd Governor General since 1541, on July 13 of last year, more seasoned and perhaps reactionary observers, like myself, fretted. The non-partisan vice-regal appointments committee, established in 2010 to inject expert historical and constitutional advice, had been abandoned. Still, two summers ago there remained the hope that Ms Payette would seek expert advice to navigate her trajectory from the rarefied world of ex-astronauts into another kind of bubble: Rideau Hall.
Why fret? Because there has been a marked tendency towards tokenism in some governments’ treatment of the position. The pattern set by Sauvé, Léger, Leblanc, Clarkson, and Jean was overtly to marginalize the Crown, degrade the traditions of their own office, and puff their personal importance and expenditure beyond that of proverbial surrogate of the Monarch. Yet the institution has survived — even if public and media understanding of it remains negligible.
Some last year seemed to think that naming a gee-gee was like casting a star in a movie. A political personage told The Globe, “She is perfectly aligned with the image that we want to project.” Whose image? Is the very real duty “to ensure that Canada always has a prime minister and a government in place that has the confidence of Parliament” just an image? It was reassuring, to some, that Payette was on intimate terms with Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and put in sufficiently ingratiating performances at cocktail functions with the political elite of Montreal. But really. Are Canadians, as John Pepall once asked in these pages, capable of taking themselves seriously?
Payette would have been an inspired choice if this were a scientific or educational post. Selecting a person qualified by knowledge and temperament to discharge most of the duties of the Head of State for five years is quite different. Announcing the appointment, the prime minister said that as an astronaut, Her Excellency has the capacity to make snap decisions. But there is no office in the land less in need of a quick decision-maker than that of governor-general. It was a skill indispensable when the governor commanded the armed forces in wartime — in the days of Sir George Prevost and the 1812 war. A governor-general today neither suddenly summons nor dismisses a Parliament, nor peremptorily invokes the Queen’s reserve powers.
That Her Excellency had no spouse was a significant handicap, though not insurmountable. Only one governor-general since Confederation, Vincent Massey, arrived at Rideau Hall without a consort. But he was aided by his socially-adept adult daughter-in-law, Lillias Massey (née Ahearn). By contrast, the inclusion of Ms Payette’s teenage son, Laurier, in the installation ceremony last year, and his delegation to lay the wreath at the National Cenotaph on Remembrance Day last month, were bizarre. Equally disconcerting is the sight of sundry minions fawning over him as some sort of dauphin, evincing a peculiar type of cringe that is characteristic of the Canadian public class in need of a Family Compact whose boots to lick. They will only spoil him. One hopes that the Letters Patent, 1947, constituting the Office of Governor-General, will not be amended to empower our Little Lord Fauntleroyalty to act as deputy governor general.
Reporters quickly found out last year that the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office skipped the normal background checks. For Ms Jean, problems arose when it was discovered, belatedly, that she was a French citizen and her husband a devotee of hard-left felquistes. In Payette’s case one is hard-pressed to find anyone in Ottawa, Houston, Montreal, or Toronto who has worked as one of her subordinates who has a positive thing to say about her humility or treatment of underlings. Dozens of staff have reportedly departed for greener pastures in the past year, from the previous Secretary and members of the RCMP security detail to administrative staff and housekeepers. Every governor-general before the current occupant treated staff better, especially before 1951 when well-bred aristocrats from the old country ceased to be called upon, though the gracious old “household” model survived until Jeanne Sauvé took a wrecking ball to it 1985.
Ms Payette thought her position entitled her to forbid the playing of bagpipes during her first visit to the National War Memorial last year. (She doesn’t like the sound.) Protocol experts should have insisted to her that “the Lament” is for the fallen, not for her.
THE DORCHESTER REVIEW refrained from pointing much of this out a year ago: the editor spiked an earlier version of this article. Since then, a total of twenty-two news reports have appeared in the National Post, Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Winnipeg Free Press, and many other media, castigating the occupant for not discharging her duties and for failing to maintain an active schedule.
Ms Payette has a lackadaisical approach, refusing to serve as patron of charitable organizations as all of her predecessors did. She almost treats her position as a part-time job. Does she not understand the meaning of public service? The Queen is 92 and is seen more often in public. While previous Governors General have endured criticism in relation to spending, none has been so thoroughly assaulted by the press as Payette for her abysmal work ethic.
Press reports revealed only a fraction of the escapades. Informed sources tell us that she appointed a personal friend with no previous experience in government to the key post of Secretary to the Governor General. She has refused to live in Rideau Hall, cohabiting with her Secretary 300 metres down the road. She has meddled with the advisory council of the Order of Canada.
Embarrassingly she rode her bicycle onto Parliament Hill in a black unitard to make her appearance on Canada Day. This projects the image of a zany high-school physics teacher with a willful manner and little social intelligence.
In short, she has been the best Governor General that Outer Space has ever had, a true Space Princess — lacking in understanding of the earthly realm over which she was commissioned to preside.
If she stays, Payette’s sincerity and understanding of the institution may yet develop, together with improvement in the execution of her mandate. Counselling and coaching are required.
While the Governor General certainly bears some responsibility for her first year in office, another problem is the advice she has been getting. Where is the cadre of capable advisors to assist her in navigating public life? Highly-paid officials in the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General and the Privy Council Office have revealed a profound lack of understanding and talent. They have failed even to help Her Excellency to map out themes and activities that align with her passions, which would at least give some shape to her hapless vice-regency.
Julie Payette still has the potential to become a suitable office-holder if she drastically changes course now. However without guidance, her legacy will be more circus than ceremony. When will she start doing her job? Canadians are tolerant. We are waiting.
— Onoto Watanna and Tisab Ting
Published in The Dorchester Review Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn/Winter 2018, pp. 74-75.