Julie Payette's controversies could be a big problem for Rideau Hall

The pressing question for both Justin Trudeau and Julie Payette is whether the former astronaut can continue to represent the Queen without doing significant damage to one of the foundational institutions of Canadian democracy, Aaron Wherry writes.

As GG and PM consider how to move forward, the weight of the institution is bearing down on them

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau form part of the procession to the Senate for the reading of the throne speech in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"Prime minister," the clerk of the privy council is reported to have advised, "your biggest problem is in Rideau Hall."

That was in 2006, when Stephen Harper was prime minister and Michaëlle Jean was Governor General. 

Fourteen years later, amid a run of unflattering stories, Justin Trudeau and Julie Payette might try to find some solace in the fact that this is not the first time the viceregal office has been said to be the location of a sizeable problem. 

But the potential stakes of such a problem cannot be taken for granted. And the pressing question for both Trudeau and Payette is whether the former astronaut can continue to represent the Queen without doing significant damage to one of the foundational institutions of Canadian democracy.

Jean hit turbulence even before she had formally assumed the role. Soon after her appointment was announced by Paul Martin, Jean was questioned about her dual citizenship with France and she and her husband were accused of sympathizing with Quebec separatists.

By 2006, when Harper's Conservatives came to office, she was reportedly proving to be a difficult fit for the office. A few years later, there was a minor clash between Jean and Harper's respective offices over whether the Governor General could rightfully refer to herself as Canada's head of state.

But Jean was able to leave Rideau Hall in 2010 with her head held high. Her decision to grant Harper a prorogation of Parliament in December 2008 was controversial, but her handling of that request sidestepped what could have been a democratic crisis. She brought new life to the office with a focus on young people, made special effort to embrace her role as a wartime commander-in-chief, and won praise as the country's "empathizer-in-chief" for her open-heartedness. 

Michaelle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are seen at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

She was also not the first Governor General to find trouble. Her immediate predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, came to be described as "controversial," in part because of questions about her expenses. Years earlier, Jeanne Sauvé was criticized for seeming to weigh in on the debate over the Meech Lake accord and blamed after the grounds of Rideau Hall were closed to the public.

After the newsworthy turns of Clarkson and Jean, Harper went in a different direction. Instead of a well-known television personality, Harper chose a university administrator, David Johnston. Among the attributes of Johnston that Harper praised was his "humility."

The Johnston years were active, but comparatively quieter and free of tumult. Then Trudeau found someone more in line with the Clarkson and Jean examples — a former astronaut and only the second Canadian woman to visit space, who speaks half a dozen languages, sings and plays piano. 

'Anytime she becomes the story, it's not good'

Because another interesting appointment has run into trouble, prime ministers might now be advised to prioritize a capacity for boringness when assessing potential governors general. There would be risk in that too — that a series of dull appointees might leave a relatively obscure office seeming that much less relevant. There is something to be said for choosing a national representative who brings at least a little excitement to the office.

But the only thing worse than an uninteresting governor general might be a governor general who is too interesting — or interesting for all the wrong reasons. And Payette might be testing the limits of how newsworthy one can allow themselves to become.

"Anytime she becomes the story, it's not good," says Barbara Messamore, a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Payette stands with Gov. Gen. David Johnston after she was invested into the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in September 2011. She succeeded him some six years later. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

While the examples of Jean and Clarkson suggest controversies can be overcome, Payette is contending with a difficult combination of questions about her approach to the job, her treatment of staff and her use of public funds. 

The resignation or dismissal of a governor general might reflect poorly on both the office-holder and the prime minister who was behind the nomination. But the potential ramifications of the current situation go well beyond the personal reputations of Payette and Trudeau.

The viceregal office is easily dismissed as an archaic ornament — a leftover remnant of British rule and the days before Canada became a mature democracy. But the Crown remains a central element of Canada's democratic structure. And there is much to be said for the stability, democratic safeguards and historic success of constitutional monarchy, particularly as compared with the American presidential system. 

Messamore uses an analogy of a fire extinguisher.

"It's brightly coloured, it's conspicuous. But we never use it and then people say, 'Well, why don't we just get rid of it? It's useless,'" she said.

"This is the difficulty when the governor general becomes controversial and particularly over expenses, these are the questions people ask me. And the explanation, unfortunately, isn't a short one." 

On any given day of the week the Governor General might seem like a simple figurehead charged with mere formalities. But it is the Governor General who ensures the peaceful transition of power and imposes a certain measure of restraint on the prime minister of the day. It is the Governor General — a non-partisan officer who is expected to maintain their distance from political debates — who the prime minister must ask to suspend Parliament or call new elections.

It is the Governor General who presides over the formation of a new government and, in rare circumstances, settles disputes over who should be entitled to seek the confidence of the House of Commons.

It is in that specific circumstance that damage to the office could have the most acute impact. "In the context of a minority parliament, in particular, where the Governor-General's discretionary authority can be decisive, there should be no questions or concerns about her judgment," Philippe Lagasse, a constitutional scholar, wrote last month in the Globe and Mail. 

Beyond that, there is the risk that controversy or scandal could endanger the future of the office itself. Any loss of public faith has at least the potential to lead to the sort of change — perhaps to an elected head of state — that could have significant consequences for the country and its democracy.

As Payette and Trudeau consider how to move forward, it is the weight of that institution that is bearing down on them.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.