Countdown begins for Julie Payette's new life as governor general

Rideau Hall is not quite outer space, but it is otherworldly, at least in decoration. It is not quite the International Space Station, but it is a bit stuffy. The food is generally better, though.

Justin Trudeau's pick for governor general is, perhaps predictably, an astronaut

Former astronaut and governor general-designate Julie Payette looks on as she is introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill on Thursday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Maybe Justin Trudeau just really likes astronauts.

When he gathered the premiers at Ottawa's Museum of Nature in November 2015 to discuss climate change, an astronaut moderated a public briefing on the state of the planet.

On Canada Day this year, the festivities on Parliament Hill included Trudeau introducing the country's two newest astronauts.

Then on Thursday, surrounded by the massive portraits of royalty that decorate the Senate foyer, Trudeau introduced a former astronaut as the next governor general.

Astronauts, of course, are easy to admire. They are the stuff of childhood dreams. From certain angles, they represent the greatest possibility of human achievement and collective effort, the fulfilment of John F. Kennedy's great vow to go to the moon.

Julie Payette managed to quote the late American president in assessing her new role.

"Just like it is in space travel, we don't necessarily do things because they're easy, but because they're hard," she said, echoing Kennedy's famed speech at Rice University in 1962. "And the task will be hard because it requires to follow in the footsteps of giants."

Rideau Hall is not quite outer space, but it is otherworldly, at least in decoration. It is not quite the International Space Station, but it is a bit stuffy. The food is generally better though.

Trudeau and Payette speak about her new role as GG

6 years ago
Duration 1:37
The Prime Minister and Governor General-Designate Julie Payette speak to reporters in the Senate Foyer

Amid the sudden change in gravity of her first day, Payette seemed to be doing fine.

How Payette became the next GG

By Trudeau's telling, the case for Payette was immediately obvious.

"From the first moment the idea came up of appointing Ms. Payette to be our next governor general, it was obvious to me that she would make an extraordinary governor general," he said.

After reviewing her unique resumé and record, Trudeau called her "unquestionably qualified."

Trudeau and Payette sat down to discuss the possibility a few weeks ago. The two spoke for an hour about space and public service and Trudeau offered her the job. 

According to a Liberal source, Indigenous candidates were among the dozen or so names bandied about internally, with the possibility considered from arguments both for and against such a move, including the pressure that could be on the first Indigenous governor general. But Payette was the only candidate Trudeau met with.

While Harper had tasked an advisory committee with considering the options before David Johnston was appointed in 2010, Trudeau took full responsibility for this one. 

Opposition welcomes her

At the very least, Payette seems comfortable at a podium (though she might have benefited from a step stool to reach the microphones). And she is able to lean on space references.

"When you see the northern part of North America from a spaceship, you get to see a lot of amazing details," she said, noting that borders are not visible from space. "A grand and luscious land, glorious and free."

She is also a quick study at discretion. Asked if she felt the monarchy was still relevant, she politely declined to offer an opinion. As the news conference drifted off to other topics, she stood impassively as Trudeau expounded on Liberal economic policy and the settlement of Omar Khadr's lawsuit.

Her appointment was also generally welcomed.

Earlier this week, several Liberal MPs told the Hill Times that it would be great if the next governor general was Indigenous. But before Payette had even been formally confirmed, the Liberal Indigenous caucus had issued a statement of congratulations to her.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer added his best wishes after the official announcement, followed by the NDP's Tom Mulcair.

Roberta Bondar on Julie Payette

6 years ago
Duration 0:36
Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut, says Julie Payette's lack of constitutional law expertise will not hold her back as governor general of Canada.

There is still time for someone to find some reason to object, but for now it appears Payette's appointment won't involve the sort of controversies that surrounded the early days of Romeo LeBlanc or Michaëlle Jean.

What will Payette do with the office?

On constitutional matters, Payette said she would lean on the expertise of others, noting that some of those chosen by space agencies to be astronauts are not immediately ready to be blasted into orbit. 

Payette is not quite ready to say what she will do with the office (in between the requisite pinning of medals, signing of laws and hosting of dinner parties). 

"As far as what the priorities of the mandate will be, I hope you will give me some time to work this out," she said. "You can imagine, though, that it might be related, some of it, to science, technology and moving forward in a society of knowledge."

She also pledged herself to the values of "tolerance, openness and working together."

Her next task will be crafting an installation speech. 

From there, she will have five years or so to work within or expand the parameters of the governor general's role.

Her 25½ days in space should have at least prepared her for the oddity of the role she is about to play.


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.