Does Canada even need a Governor General?


Among the questions that emerge from the mess surrounding the resignation of Governor General Julie Payette is: Should Canadians even care?

The office of the representative of the Queen in Canada has outlived its usefulness to many – especially for Indigenous peoples and people of colour for whom Canada’s colonial past bears little resemblance to today’s multi-ethnic reality.

Does Canada even need a Governor-General?

The fallout following Payette’s departure over workplace harassment allegations is all the evidence many Canadians require to answer that question with a resounding no.

It’s clear that whatever allegations were made against Payette, they’re bad.

An outside review into complaints against Payette was delivered to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau PM late last week. By Thursday night, shortly after reports started leaking out to the press about the report’s “scathing” contents, Payette had tendered her resignation. Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council, described some of the contents of the report to CBC as “disturbing” and “worrisome.” Earlier reports suggest Payette was verbally abusive to staff.

You don’t have to read too much between the lines of the statements issued by the PM and Payette – “Everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, at all times and under all circumstances,” Payette said – to come to the conclusion that whatever went down may be heading to court. 

Noteworthy in that regard is the fact Payette’s secretary, who was also part of the probe, has reportedly hired the firm of Marie Henein (of Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial fame) to represent her.

Outwardly, Payette’s appointment in 2017 was a great choice. In many regards, Payette was overqualified for the job. She’s an engineer, scientist and astronaut.

She served on the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery, the first to perform a docking at the international space station. She has had a long and distinguished career in a field where men dominate. She has a school named after her in Whitby. By most accounts, she should be a role model for young women.

But her appointment was steeped in controversy from the get-go after it was revealed that she had struck and killed a pedestrian while driving in July 2011. Four months after that, she was charged with second-degree assault in an incident reportedly involving her then-husband. The charge was eventually dropped. She was not charged in the earlier incident.

Some observers have publicly expressed the view that the scrutiny she received over the assault charge was unfair. But the details of her personal life cast doubt on the vetting process that led to her appointment.

The PM described that process as “rigorous” in a press conference on Friday but said that it’s worth “re-examining”.

Some Ottawa pundits have offered that this would be an opportune time for the PM to nominate an Indigenous person – or someone from our West where separatist sentiment is building – to replace Payette. 

They’re both good suggestions but do we need a re-examination of the role of the office itself?  

Some argue that the role of GG is mostly ceremonial and hasn’t served any useful political purpose since the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982. True enough (mostly).

As the Queen’s representative in Canada, however, the role of GG does include, besides acting as head of the military, ensuring that there is no “abuse of power” by Parliament.

In that regard, the position is supposed to be an important check on democracy, much like our Senate – which actually acts more nowadays as an impediment to democracy but that’s another story. The GG has rarely been called upon to exercise that authority. But it has happened.

Back in 2008, when Stephen Harper was PM and the NDP, Liberals and Bloc struck up a coalition to replace his minority government, Harper went to the GG at the time Michaelle Jean and asked her to prorogue Parliament. The move was widely seen as a crass attempt by Harper to hold onto power. 

Jean granted Harper’s wish after a meeting of several hours at Rideau Hall and the rest is history. (Harper would go on to win a minority and majority after that and govern for seven more years.)

Jean’s decision was unpopular at the time. The economy was on the brink, most Canadians wanted a change and it was painfully obvious that Harper was trying to avoid a confidence motion in the House.

But it was revealed later that Jean set conditions for granting Harper’s wish – namely, that the Harper government table a budget that’s passable to a majority of Parliament when the House reconvened some months later. The move set an important precedent for future PMs inclined to use the GG for their narrow political purposes.  

Jean’s own appointment in 2005 was not without controversy after documentary footage of her toasting Quebec independence surfaced. Jean was also known to wade into touch political waters expressing, for example, her support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. 

Jean stepped down in 2010 at the end of her five-year term despite calls from then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for the government to break with tradition and extend her appointment. Jean was an example of the true power of the office. But she remains an exception. 

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