In what universe is it appropriate for a Governor General to deride people for their beliefs?: Urback

Had Julie Payette flippantly dismissed traditional Indigenous healing methods at a recent science conference the way she did cancer patients taking "sugar pills," I doubt she'd be afforded the defences she's currently enjoying from many supporters, Robyn Urback writes.

It's hardly within Julie Payette's mandate to express incredulity at Canadians' views on religion or science

Julie Payette, the Governor General of Canada, essentially mocked people for believing in horoscopes, alternative medicine, divine intervention and for not believing in climate change, incredulous that some Canadians would hold those views 'still today in learned society,' Robyn Urback writes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This is not a column about whether climate change is real. Or whether human actions have accelerated the rate of that change. (For the record, my views are "it is" and "they have," but that doesn't really matter.)

It is also not a column about whether there is merit to the notion that Geminis are exceptionally quick-witted and sociable, or whether life was created by a divine intervention. (On these, my views are "what?" and "how much time do you have…?" Again, for the purposes of this column, it doesn't matter.)

Payette, left, meets the queen during a private audience at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, on Sept. 20, 2017. Urback argues Payette's role in Canada should ultimately be apolitical. (The Associated Press)

This is a column, rather, on whether the Queen's representative in Canada — someone who is supposed to be uncontroversial and apolitical in her role as steward of the functioning of the government of Canada — should be deriding people for their beliefs on issues like climate change, religion and alternative medicine. The answer should be obvious.

On Wednesday night, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette appeared as keynote speaker at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. From her podium there, she took on everyone from climate-change deniers to religious observers:

"Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we're still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period," she said.

Payette's delivery was theatrical, her tone incredulous:

"And 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, a random process.

"And so many people — I'm sure you know many of them — still believe, want to believe, that maybe taking a sugar pill will cure cancer, if you will it!

"And every single one of the people here's personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations."

Payette's controversial speech on science

5 years ago
Duration 1:01
During a speech to a conference in Ottawa, Governor General Julie Payette made dismissive references to astrology, the notion of "divine intervention" in the creation of life, and those who doubt the science behind climate change.

Apolitical by design

The role of the Governor General is apolitical by design; as a representative of the Crown, she is expected to use her executive powers in the interest of Canada, and not a single party, or group or administration. The integrity of the role falls apart if the governor general is perceived to be of one camp or another.

For that reason, some will argue that the Governor General should never weigh in on topics that are even remotely political. They argue that while some people have decided that, for example, the science is settled on climate change, the very fact that debate still exists on the topic should preclude the Governor General from inserting herself in the conversation, lest she appear to be of a certain allegiance.

There is some merit to that position. Indeed, the tweet by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna cheering on Payette for her remarks should make Canadians more than uncomfortable. We don't want a government that is a fan of or "proud" of the Governor General; we want a Government that is essentially indifferent to the Governor General.

Nevertheless, if Payette is going to weigh in on these issues — and it's somewhat expected that she will, being an engineer and an astronaut and all — there is a proper way to do so. Had Payette used her platform to urge Canadians to be mindful of their carbon footprints, or laud the scientific breakthroughs in modern medicine, or even to warn about the dangers of climate change, I'd probably be writing my 37th column on Ontario's stupid marijuana plan right now and not one on the Governor General.

But she didn't do that. Instead, Payette essentially mocked people for believing in horoscopes, alternative medicine, divine intervention and for not believing in climate change, incredulous that some Canadians would hold those views "still today in learned society."

Perhaps you believe those people deserve to be mocked. That's fine. But there are more than 36 million Canadians whose job titles are not expressly to be impartial who can take on that responsibility. What's more, Canada has health, science and environment ministries that challenge climate change deniers and pseudoscientific medicine every single day. Our prime minister talks about the environment all the time. Payette's voice is not only damaging to her own credibility as an apolitical figure, but it's also largely unnecessary.

Payette didn't simply "state facts" as some of her defenders have insisted. (In any case, stating a fact can still be perceived as making a political statement; had Payette flippantly dismissed traditional Indigenous healing methods instead of cancer patients taking sugar pills, I doubt she'd be afforded the defences she's currently enjoying from many observers.) Rather, she appeared to deride people for their beliefs.

There is a difference between advocating for science and marvelling at the apparent dolts who still believe in horoscopes — or in God, for that matter. In what universe is it appropriate for Canada's Governor General to do that?   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:


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