September 24, 2020

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Dignified exit is the best remaining option

Editorial

The questions have become decidedly more pointed.

As recently as last week, concerns about the conduct and demeanour of Governor General Julie Payette tended to be voiced in terms of "What do we do about the vice-regal’s behaviour?"

Since then, the tone has shifted. Now, the bluntly worded queries are more along the lines of, "Is it possible to fire a Governor General?"

The answer, it turns out, is both "Yes" and "It’s complicated." But the truth of the matter is that it shouldn’t have to come to that.

Given all that has been revealed lately about the current holder of the title of the Queen’s representative in Canada — from staff reports of abusive behaviour to allegations of lavish spending on renovations to Rideau Hall (the official residence at which Ms. Payette has yet to reside) to perceived general indifference toward the ceremonial obligations of the job — it is becoming increasingly apparent that the best course of action for Canada’s current Governor General is to resign.

This is in no way meant to disparage the professional accomplishments of Ms. Payette — an engineer, scientist, pilot and astronaut who, during two separate journeys aloft, has logged more than three weeks in space. She has functioned at the highest levels in her chosen professions. She just doesn’t seem all that well suited to her current situation.

One mightn’t be completely surprised. By all accounts, Ms. Payette has long been an overachiever — the goal-oriented sort generally categorized as a "Type A" personality. The governor-generalship, however, lends itself more easily to ambitions on the "Type B" side of the grid, where relationships, an outgoing nature and boundless enthusiasm are the prevalent qualities.

Governor General Julie Payette’s predecessors have put their personal stamp on the duties they performed, but they have not sought to upend tradition by making the role something it isn’t.

JUSTIN TANG / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Governor General Julie Payette’s predecessors have put their personal stamp on the duties they performed, but they have not sought to upend tradition by making the role something it isn’t.

Given the stark disconnect between the person and the position, it’s a bit surprising that Ms. Payette opted to accept the governor-generalship in the first place. It’s surely an honour to be asked, and a tribute to a life of professional accomplishment that has brought honour to her country. The annual stipend of nearly $300,000 is also a material incentive, no doubt.

But accepting the job also brings with it an explicit obligation to do the job. Steeped, as it is, in tradition and ceremony and no shortage of pomp or circumstance, the governor-generalship is not a job one takes on and then attempts to mould and shape to suit one’s own personality and inclinations.

The role is what the role always has been; Ms. Payette’s predecessors have put their personal stamp on the duties they performed, but they have not sought to upend tradition by making the role something it isn’t.

Given the stark disconnect between the person and the position, it’s a bit surprising that Ms. Payette opted to accept the governor–generalship in the first place.

In absolute terms, removal of a Governor General can only be done by the Queen, on the advice of the prime minister; as a practical matter, however, the Queen is unlikely to become involved in this situation, so it’s up to the prime minister and the Governor General to decide next steps.

The Trudeau government’s position on Ms. Payette’s tenure was made abundantly clear last week when the deputy prime minister was asked to comment.

"I think Canadians have a great respect for the office of the Governor General, and I have that respect, as well," said Chrystia Freeland, who deftly dodged a follow-up query about whether Canadians should have confidence in this Governor General.

Having lost the confidence of the government that selected her, and having very little apparent interest in meeting the long-established requirements of the role, Ms. Payette would be well advised to depart now with as much dignity as remains.

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