Controversies Past and Present: The Governor General Role Post-WWII

August 13, 2020 Updated: August 25, 2020

The subject of a Privy Council Office investigation after anonymous harassment claims by current and former Rideau Hall staff surfaced in July, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette is facing questions about her conduct in the non-partisan, viceregal role.

Over the years, every governor general has brought his or her own characteristics and, at times, foibles to the position.

“Every governor general was a different personality. They didn’t get where they got because they had very vague personalities, that they would comply with everybody telling them what to do,” says  historian Michael D. Behiels, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

If the allegations about Payette’s conduct are credible, she has not adjusted well to the rigid confines of the largely ceremonial and public function as Canada’s titular head of state. It’s a function that, among others, include providing royal assent to bills and acting as arbiter of protocol when parliaments are prorogued or dissolved and new governments formed.

Behiels has keenly observed what he describes as the post-Second World War Canadianization of the role. He says revelations that Payette billed taxpayers more than $250,000 for privacy modifications at Rideau Hall, including plans for an unbuilt staircase, are overblown.

“This issue of privacy [at Rideau Hall] is very old, especially when [Vincent] Massey stepped in there,” he said of the first Canadian-born governor general. Massey came to occupy the official residence in 1952 , a building designed for work and lodgings but seldom used for the latter.

Before Massey, governors general were British and travelled back and forth between the U.K. and Canada. But when the position was “Canadianized,” Behiels says, “nothing was done really to change the structure of that whole building.”

Unlike her predecessors, Payette has yet to take up residence there and is instead occupying a relatively newer property nearby normally used for visiting foreign dignitaries.

But there have been more extreme cases. Behiels noted that in the 1980s former governor general Jeanne Sauvé closed the entire 2.3 acre property–considered a public park in Ottawa–over privacy concerns.

“Sauvé didn’t really understand the role as it should be and she locked the grounds down. And Canadians said, ‘That’s Canadian property.’ The cricket players were kicked out. Everybody was kicked out. … But again, that comes down to this question of privacy,” he said.

“But she had a different personality again, and she was not very approachable and she did not like to play the public role.”

The building, the history of the position, and its underpinnings for Canada’s democracy, as well as the array of personalities who have occupied the role—among them senior diplomats, former broadcasters, and members of the political class like Sauvé—have more recently transformed the governor general characteristics, Behiels says.

“Now that we choose from a cross-section of the Canadian society, that’s going to happen. We’ve seen it over I think all of the choices that have been made over the last 25 years.”

Given Payette’s storied, pre-appointment career, possession of unique experiences is an understatement. In 1992 she was selected for the Canadian Astronaut Corps., learned to fly a jet plane, and eventually logged 25 days in space aboard two NASA shuttle missions.

Back on Earth, she served as chief astronaut for the Canada Space Agency as well as the chief operating officer for the Montreal Science Centre.

Despite having all-star candidate status, Payette assumed the role of Elizabeth II’s monarchal proxy in October 2017 under a cloud of assault charges, which emerged in July that year, involving her ex-husband in 2011 (charges were dropped). News also surfaced that Payette had been at the wheel in a fatal auto collision in Maryland involving a pedestrian, also 2011, a few months before the assault charges were laid. It was determined an accident, with the pedestrian deemed to have stepped off the curb when she should not have, according to the Toronto Star.

There have been other recent controversies about other governors general as well, including questions Adrienne Clarkson’s expenses and allegations of past separatist leanings levelled at Michaëlle Jean, which she denied.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said little about Payette apart from his office saying it will ensure all federally regulated workplaces are free from harassment. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland recently expressed respect for the governor general’s office but stopped short of backing its current occupant.

These latest developments emanating from Payette’s office add to the woes of Trudeau and his minority government, currently besieged by the WE Charity scandal.

While some commentators have said Payette should step down, Biehels says it’s not such a simple matter.

“We’ll see what happens here, I’m not going to make any statement one way or another on that. … But to remove someone in any sort of way is very, very difficult. And I’m sure conversations are going on between the Queen and the Canadian government.”