As an astronaut, an engineer and a woman, Julie Payette will make her mark as governor general

The symbolism of Julie Payette's appointment will not be what some had imagined. But the country will soon be officially represented by an accomplished female astronaut and scientist, giving Payette the opportunity to leave her mark.

Trudeau picks an accomplished francophone woman for a key symbolic role

Canadian astronaut Julie Payette smiles during a ceremony to present a Québécois flag that she brought to space during her last mission, at the National Assembly in Quebec City in November 2009. She will serve as Canada's next governor general. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Julie Payette is one of 10 Canadians to go to space, and the second Canadian woman to do so. She has degrees in engineering, worked for IBM before joining the Canadian Space Agency, was chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre, speaks a half dozen languages, plays the piano and is an accomplished singer. 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will introduce her as Canada's next governor general.

The symbolism of that appointment — officially made by the Queen, whom Trudeau spoke with last week — will not be what some imagined it might be. But the country will soon be officially represented by an accomplished female astronaut and scientist. And that has a symbolic quality all its own.

There had been speculation that Trudeau would choose an Indigenous governor general, a potentially significant gesture toward reconciliation.

To some degree, Trudeau might have fuelled such speculation when he hinted a year ago that he would have Canada's diversity in mind when he recommended a name to the Queen.

"I suspect I might be saying 'because it's 2017' when the time for that decision comes around to be explained," he said in February 2016, a throwback to his quip the previous fall when he appointed a gender-balanced cabinet.

"I can reassure you, I will take into account the nature of Canada and the desire of Canadians to see institutions and appointments across the government that reflect the diversity of Canada."

There is still, it might be noted, a seat on the Supreme Court to fill.

But now that she is here, Payette sounds like exactly the sort of governor general one might have expected Trudeau to seek out: having made a name for himself as a feminist and as someone who could explain quantum computing, Trudeau has found a female astronaut to be the next governor general.

Payette will be just the fourth woman to be governor general. And her appointment will keep with the tradition of alternating between a francophone and an anglophone.

But she is also an incredibly accomplished woman involved in science, a pursuit that is still predominantly populated by men. She is already a role model.

Science also happens to be a field Trudeau has tried to embrace, both as a mark of his government's own wisdom and as a vision for the future of the country's economy.

Recent events involving the lieutenant-governor following the election in British Columbia have reminded us the governor general is an important backstop in how we govern ourselves, but it is mostly a symbolic post: quite literally, the Queen's representative and Canada's figurehead. 

And though that could be dismissed as a remnant of our monarchical heritage, the office can help define the country and symbols can matter.

A short history of GGs

Governors general are freighted with symbolism, noted for the small changes they make, the causes they champion or what they represent.

In practice, the office has evolved as Canada has, marked in certain ways by a series of firsts.

For the first 85 years of this country's existence, the governors general were Brits, all with aristocratic titles: six earls, four lords, three viscounts, two marquesses and two dukes.

The first Canadian to hold the post was Vincent Massey in 1952.

Jeanne Sauvé became the first woman to occupy the office in 1984. Ray Hnatyshyn, appointed in 1990, was a first-generation Ukrainian-Canadian. His successor, Romeo LeBlanc, was the first Acadian governor general.

Adrienne Clarkson, born in Hong Kong, was the first non-white governor general, the first immigrant to hold the title and the first person to come to the office from somewhere other than politics or the military. 

Michaëlle Jean, a black woman, had fled to Canada with her family from Haiti.

On the day of Barack Obama's inauguration in 2008, a DJ set up in the ballroom of Rideau Hall spun a record by Gil Scott-Heron, the American spoken-word poet and civil-rights activist, as part of a gathering of young people to mark the new president's arrival.

It was perhaps not the sort of thing you would normally associate with the monarchy or the official residence of the Queen's representative. But it was quintessential of Jean's loose and heartfelt term that seemed at times to push the office to be viewed differently.

By all such measures, the appointment of David Johnston in 2010 was neither historic nor flashy, even if it was still admirable.

The elevation of the former academic and university administrator seemed in keeping with Stephen Harper's aversion to fuss. Johnston was Canada's bookish, kindly grandfather. He focused on ideas like philanthropy, volunteerism, learning, family and children. He wrote a book about the country. He inaugurated a new prize for innovation.

Johnston has had his interesting moments — he tweaked the legal profession, addressed violence in hockey, commented on the controversy around the niqab and was compelled to apologize for comments about Indigenous Canadians — but for the most part his term was marked by understatement.

Of course, there is much to be said for understatement. 

Payette's turn to make a mark

Indeed, being an impartial symbol of an entire country necessarily requires a certain amount of understatement. 

But amid the officialdom, there is still room to manoeuvre, or even merely to stand at home and abroad as a symbol of something.

It will perhaps be considered a missed opportunity​ that the next governor general won't be Indigenous.

But Payette will symbolize other things. And soon, styled as Her Excellency, she will get to formally leave her mark.


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.


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