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Poor selection leads to stain on Canada’s governor general’s office

The office of the Governor General of Canada fulfills an important function in our current government system. Whether we agree with our continuing link to the British monarchy or not, the Queen is still Canada’s Head of State and the Governor General is her representative in Canada.

The unwritten tradition in the last few appointments has been to alternate the nominations between men and women, as well as anglophone and francophone, while ensuring that at times, other minorities are also represented. In addition, the nominees should be well known and accomplished individuals who are apolitical and respected by all Canadians.

This makes the nomination process complex, which is why former prime minister Stephen Harper introduced Bill C-569 in 2013, which set out a procedure for the appointment and removal of the governor general, including setting up an advisory committee to provide recommendations to the PM. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to scrap this committee and make the last recommendation based on a less formal process. This has unfortunately led to a choice which was less than ideal for the country and has resulted in a substantial stain on this official office.

Most Canadians know that the the position of Governor General is largely ceremonial and does not affect Canadians on a daily basis. However, the office has some important constitutional roles and the Governor General has significant powers. The functions of the Governor General as the Commander-in-Chief of Canada’s military, as well as its role to represent Canada abroad, and to bring Canadians together, should also not be underestimated.

As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for many years, I had the opportunity to serve overseas and represent Canada in many foreign lands, and it was a duty I took very seriously and thoroughly enjoyed. Canada has a good reputation in the world largely because our representatives abroad, (of which the Governor General is an important player), are projecting a positive image of Canada.

There is no doubt that Julie Payette seemed, on the surface, to be a good choice to fill the position. She met the requirements of being a woman, francophone and multilingual, well-accomplished and recognized by Canadians. But it has now become clear that although she met those easy to determine characteristics, she lacked some of the softer skills that are vital for the accomplishments of the duties of the office.

As soon as she was nominated, there were questions from the media about some of her past which might have hinted about some character flaws. But her response in 2017 was that, “Very few families are immune from difficult moments in life, mine included.” Rightly so, these events, which were related to her divorce, were forgiven and forgotten to a large extent.

But the fact that some of her more recent past as the chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre, which she left in 2016 after allegations of verbal abuse and hostile work environment, and her position at the Canadian Olympic Committee, which she left in 2017 after two internal investigations into her treatment of staff including verbal harassment, should have served as clear signs that her personality might not be compatible with her new role.

As Prime Minister Trudeau had done away with the advisory committee that was set up by former prime minister Harper, many of the details of Payette’s past and her personality traits were either not uncovered, or simply pushed under the rug as trivial or not relevant. Unfortunately, the lack of a comprehensive selection, which could have been done by a properly selected committee, led to a rather unfortunate decision that has resulted in an embarrassing situation, not only for the government in place, but for all Canadians.

Payette was about half way through her five-year term when the allegations of verbal abuse and toxic work environment surfaced. It took another six months for a detailed report to be produced and incite her resignation. It is possible to imagine that she could have completed her term without the details of the situation surfacing.

Although all Canadians now feel the pain of this embarrassment, it is still for the best that this issue has been brought to the forefront because it demonstrates to the world that Canadians do not stand for what has led to this toxic work environment.

I hope that Prime Minister Trudeau has learned a good lesson with this episode. As righteous as he thinks he might be, he cannot be expected to provide detailed reviews of senior appointments on his own. There are not enough hours in the day for that.

And the Governor General appointment, although seen by many as largely ceremonial, is of the highest importance to Canada and Canadians.

So let’s make sure we have the next nomination right, Mr. Trudeau.