Choosing Canada’s Next Governor General

January 25, 2021 Updated: January 25, 2021

Following the resignation of Julie Payette, attention has turned to how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should go about choosing Canada’s next viceregal.

Payette, who has had a turbulent tenure since her appointment in 2017, resigned on Jan. 21 after an independent review found that she bullied and verbally abused staff at Rideau Hall.

David E. Smith, a political studies professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, said the office of the governor general serves an important role in Canadian parliamentary democracy.

“It’s quite remarkable all that they do. I think that people don’t appreciate what they’re doing, but they’re quite active,” Smith said in an interview.

“It’s probably more demanding than most of us realize. There’s a lot of public activities that one does, and you’re in the public eye quite a bit. … It’s not just some formality without any purpose.”

Governors general summon, prorogue, and dissolve Parliament. They set out the government’s program by reading the speech from the throne and give royal assent, which makes acts of Parliament into law, among other duties.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says viceregal candidates shouldn’t be selected based on celebrity, but rather on whether they’re a good fit for the position.

“What you want is a boring, dull, fuddy duddy. You want someone who is suited for the job and isn’t getting the job just because they’re a celebrity,” Wiseman told The Epoch Times.

Payette, 57, became the first Canadian to board the International Space Station during her career as an astronaut between 1992 and 2013. She was appointed governor general in 2017 at the suggestion of former prime minister Jean Chretien.

When Stephen Harper was prime minister, in 2012 he established a non-partisan advisory committee to provide recommendations on the selection of the governor general, an approach Trudeau rejected but which Wiseman says worked well.

“I thought the procedure Stephen Harper established was excellent. He established a committee that included constitutional experts that recommended some names. The result was David Johnston, who himself was a constitutional expert, was selected.”

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc has said that Payette’s resignation shows a need to strengthen the process for vetting governor general appointments.

In 2016, Payette resigned from her previous position as head of the Montreal Science Centre after complaints of her treatment of employees.

After her appointment as viceregal, media reports revealed that Payette had been charged in the United States in 2011 with assault against her then-husband. (The charges were dropped.)

More unfavourable press followed, including that over $250,000 was spent on redesigns and renovations at Rideau Hall to ensure Payette’s privacy, and that she was often at odds with the RCMP over security issues.

In July 2020, it was reported that since the start of the pandemic, four members of Payette’s communications team had departed. In addition, a fifth person was leaving that week, and two had taken leaves of absence. Payette and her deputy—her longtime friend Assunta Di Lorenzo, who has also resigned—have both been accused of harassing and verbally abusing employees.

Trudeau has insisted that Payette was properly vetted.

“For all high-level appointments, there is a rigorous vetting process that was followed in this case,” he told reporters on Jan. 22. “Obviously, we will continue to look at that vetting process to ensure that it is the best possible process as we move forward.”

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said the governor general should be fully independent and impartial and not “handpicked” by the prime minister, as that “taints the position with partisanship.”

A campaign launched by Democracy Watch proposes that an independent committee “conduct a public, merit-based search for a shortlist of three nominees” for the position, with the final choice being approved all federal party leaders.

“Given how important it is for the Governor General to be independent of the Prime Minister and impartial, especially in a minority government situation, Prime Minister Trudeau must involve opposition parties in choosing the Governor General, and it would be even better to involve party leaders from across Canada given that the Governor General appoints the Lieutenant Governors in each province,” Conacher said in a news release.

John Fraser, founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College, said that “there is no need to reinvent the wheel” when it comes to reforming viceregal appointments, as the process devised by the Harper government worked well.

He said the current spotlight on the viceregal office could “provide the necessary impetus for reform of the method of viceregal appointments—not just of governors-general, but of their provincial counterparts, too, where prime ministerial patronage is often unfettered.”

“These important positions—and the Canadians they serve—warrant a selection process that is above reproach. The imminent replacement of lieutenant-governors in Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec offers an early opportunity for reform—not to mention the choice of the next governor-general,” Fraser co-wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed.

Trudeau asked Payette to resign after receiving an independent report commissioned by the government—which will soon be made public—to look into allegations of a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall.

“Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months, and for that, I am sorry,” Payette said in her resignation statement. “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner will perform Payette’s former duties until Trudeau can fill the governor general vacancy, the first ever made by a resignation.