The Governor General’s fall from grace was unprecedented in Canadian history

Political experts — and a former lieutenant-governor — explain how Julie Payette’s appointment went wrong and what needs to happen next
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 27, 2021
Then Governor General Julie Payette delivers the throne speech in the Senate chamber in Ottawa on September 23, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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David Onley was lieutenant-governor of Ontario for seven years, making him the second-longest-serving vice-regal in this province since Confederation. In other words, the guy had the gig long enough to have a good sense of what the job entailed, what was kosher, and what wasn’t.

Onley came into his role in 2007, having been appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (well, technically, he was appointed by the Governor General of the day on Harper’s recommendation). He was the first LG with a visible physical disability, having suffered from polio as a child. When he assumed his rightful place in the speaker’s chair at his installation ceremony at Queen’s Park, it was a beautiful and emotional moment.

I put all this on the record because Onley has had to try harder than most to get to where he is. He took over the job hoping not only to fulfill his vice-regal responsibilities, but also to push some new ideas and show Ontarians what people with disabilities are capable of.

One day, when he told his chief of staff Anthony Hylton about a new idea he wanted to pursue, Hylton suggested that might not be such a good idea.

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But Onley insisted.

And so did Hylton.

“I was starting to really heat up,” Onley told his University of Toronto Scarborough political-science class earlier this week. But Hylton continued to stand his ground — surely a difficult thing to do with the Queen’s representative.

“Sir,” he told Onley, “you must remember that my main job is to make sure you don’t get into any trouble.”

“Yes,” Onley acknowledged, backing down. “That is the prime job.”

You never heard about whatever the two men had talked about, because the idea didn’t go any further. Onley had the job, but Hylton had the long-standing institutional experience that was crucial to ensuring his boss didn’t make headlines for all the wrong reasons. And, throughout what was an exemplary lieutenant-governorship, Onley didn’t.

Sadly, the latest goings-on in Ottawa were a different case entirely. When the Queen appointed her Governor General in 2017 (on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), Julie Payette was permitted to bring in her own chief of staff. The result: both Payette and her former principal adviser, Assunta di Lorenzo, are out, having presided over what an independent investigation called a toxic workplace replete with harassment of employees.

The event is without precedent in Canadian history. Some Governors General have stayed longer than the typical five-year term. None has ever resigned before his or her term was up.  

“That should not have been allowed to happen,” Michael Jackson, chief of protocol for Saskatchewan from 1980 to 2005 and author of numerous books on Canada’s relationship with the Crown, told Onley’s class. “The prime minister’s office engineered the appointment for understandable reasons. But the problems were apparent from day one. Somebody should have moved on this much earlier.”

Onley, a one-time space reporter at Citytv, originally had high hopes for Payette’s term. He well understood the symbiotic relationship between astronaut and mission control and assumed Payette did as well.

“It reminded me of my relationship with my staff,” he said, referring to his time spent as LG. “I’m so dependent on them in so many ways, just as an astronaut is completely dependent on mission control.”

The prime minister said that one of the reasons he’d thought Payette would be a fit for the Governor General’s job was her ability to make snap decisions in space. That didn’t move Onley much.

“There are no snap decisions by vice-regals,” he said. “Everything is very contemplative. You need measured judgments.”

“It’s shocking it was allowed to progress this far,” added Bryn MacPherson, private secretary to three former Ontario lieutenant-governors. MacPherson also pointed out that it was doubly important to have had someone with institutional memory in the principal adviser’s role with Payette, since the former astronaut didn’t come from the world of politics or journalism (as many vice-regals have) and therefore would have had a much steeper learning curve. But that didn’t happen.

“I got to know David Johnston,” Onley said, referring to Payette’s predecessor as Governor General. “He had great people around him to keep him out of trouble. But, for whatever reason, [Payette] didn’t listen.”

In the absence of a Governor General, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Richard Wagner, is now Canada’s “Administrator” and will fulfil the basics of the job until the Queen appoints his replacement. Should official Ottawa move quickly to find a new GG?

“No! Don’t rush,” admonished Jackson. “There is no emergency here. The chief justice can do what’s required, including dissolving Parliament and calling an election. It’s happened before.”

Indeed, it has. Jackson was referring to a moment in 1974 when then Governor General Jules Leger suffered a stroke after only six months on the job. As a result, Leger was unable to meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to accede to his request to dissolve a minority parliament and send Canadians to the polls for July 8. So Trudeau met with Chief Justice Bora Laskin. Parliament was dissolved, the election happened, and the current PM’s father won his third election, this time a majority.

“Take it easy,” Jackson said. “Better that than appointing another unsuitable person as Governor General.”

Jackson would like to see the re-establishment of the vice-regal advisory committee that Harper created (but that Justin Trudeau bypassed) to advise prime ministers on these appointments.

“This has devalued the important role of the Governor General in our system,” said Chris Cochrane, associate chair of the political-science department at U of T Scarborough. “It’s not a catastrophe, but it certainly is an exception to the impeccable pattern that Governors General have demonstrated in the past.”

The Privy Council Office says it will advise the PM on a new appointment this week. Cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc, whose father Romeo was Governor General from 1995 to 1999, has said the government would like a new GG in place “in weeks, not months.”

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